One month ago, The New York Times published a long piece on the front page about shocking allegations of anti-Semitism—swastikas on lockers, anti-Semitic nicknames and jokes, the throwing of coins at Jewish students—at Pine Bush School District, which has a significant Jewish population and is located in upstate New York, not two hours from New York City, where there are a few Jews as well. Three Jewish families have sued the district, which denies everything. That Jew-hatred would crop up in a sleepy, secular school district upstate—yes, even one that 40 years ago hosted a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon, as the Times reported—was weird enough to be newsworthy. If the charges were true, it would mean that anti-Semitism is alive and well where you least expect it, and that no American Jew—in Pine Bush, in Pensacola, in Park Slope—should feel entirely safe.
However, new reporting and a closer look at the Times article suggest that the story is more ambivalent and complicated. While there is likely a there there—and indeed, reporter Benjamin Weiser subsequently reported Justice Department and New York state investigations—there may also be something more: A sign of tensions not only between Jews and Gentiles but between different kinds of Jews.
It’s worth noting that the original Times article contained fervent, almost incredulous denials of anti-Semitism from the (Jewish) former school superintendent. Subsequently, The Village Voice collected various Pine Bush residents’ reactions, some of which were disbelieving. Other responses, by contrast, were rancid, and would have seemed to confirm the hostile portrait the lawsuit paints. One tweet read, “why cause more drama then there already is in this town. The jews just needa go back to kj where they belong.”
Here's where it gets interesting. “kj” stands for Kiryas Joel, a nearby town known for being dominated by Hasidic Jews of the Satmar dynasty. The Times reported in 2011 that the community, despite being by some measures the poorest in the country—many residents don’t speak English, devote their time to religious study or childrearing, and have many, many offspring (two years ago, the median age in Kiryas Joel was 12)—is able to wield outsize political influence and win benefits specific to their town by voting as a bloc. It secured, for example, “a luxurious 60-bed postnatal maternal care center” in the town, which “was built with $10 million in state and federal grants,” according to the Times.
Kiryas Joel is about a half-hour from the Pine Bush School District. Might the reporting of charges of anti-Semitism in the significantly Jewish—but not Hasidic—school district be at all related to Kiryas Joel's proximity? A recent article in The New York Jewish Week suggests yes. It hinted that the Satmar community could have “somehow triggered” the article, perhaps by leaking the suit to the Times. The paper’s Stewart Ain reported:
Many of those interviewed questioned the timing of the front-page article about the suit in The New York Times earlier this month. Some suggested that community opposition to a 396-unit townhouse being built in the school district and reportedly marketed exclusively to Satmar Jews somehow triggered the Times’ story. As they explained it, they decided to fight growing opposition to the development by claiming residents don’t want Jews moving in. To prove their point, they leaked the suit to the Times as evidence of anti-Semitism in the community.
(The townhouse—as well as, reportedly, an all-girls’ yeshiva—would be built outside Kiryas Joel, in the Pine Bush School District.)
The general thrust of the NY Jewish Week article is that Jewish residents of Pine Bush are “dumbfounded” by the anti-Semitism allegations. A sample quotation read: “[my] mother in Stony Brook called and said she read the article and wanted to know what’s going on. I said we’re OK, we’re fine—and my son is very vocal about being Jewish.”
Shmarya Rosenberg, proprietor of a blog, Failed Messiah, devoted to exposing alleged corruption in the Hasidic community primarily in the United States, reported in September that the townhouse developer had spent most of his time lobbying for the project without revealing that it was in fact a plan for a new, Satmar-only village. Rosenberg has noted that Eric Schneiderman, the state's attorney general, is also investigating the development. Pine Bush residents fear the development will cost them more tax dollars.
It would be difficult—no, impossible—for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, or Kiryas Joel’s Satmar community, or the Times, or anyone, to conjure out of thin air all the anecdotes and charges outlined in the Times piece. (The Village Voice found evidence of real, if perhaps isolated, instances of anti-Semitism in reaction to the Times article.) It seems likely there remains more of this tale to be told.
Although Jews have better reasons to be Jewish than to oppose anti-Semitism, the last thing it should do is divide Jews. If it is true that Jews of the Satmar dynasty—which was re-established after World War II expressly to use isolation, religious study, and the unabashed pursuit of self-interest to ensure that the Jewish people would never be wiped out—cheaply and crassly tried to use anti-Semitism for their own gain, that would be shameful and sad.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the prospective developer as a Satmar Jew.