The dangers of open windows
by David Zweibel
Am Echad Resources
July 19, 1999
The picture in the newspaper looked grimly familiar. Grief-stricken teenagers, tears streaming down their faces, brows knitted in consternation, mouths agape in horror, mourning the murder of one of their classmates – by another. Just the latest incident of murderous teen violence.
Except that the anguished faces in the photo were not those of the sons and daughters of Colorado, or Kentucky, or Arkansas, but of Jerusalem.
They had gathered in East Talpiot on June 10 to mourn the murder of their 15-year-old friend Gilad Raviv – just as another group of teenagers had gathered one week earlier in Upper Nazareth to cry for their friend Yevgeny Yakobovich, also 15, who had been beaten and stabbed to death by five schoolmates because he had apparently annoyed them.
These incidents reflect an alarming trend in the Jewish State. According to a recent survey of Israeli students in grades 6-10, some 25% of boys and 6% of girls carry a weapon for self-protection – with approximately 10% of all students bringing a weapon to school with them. Teenage violence may be as American as apple pie, but strudel is apparently popular in Israel too.
Here in the United States, much has been written and said about the cause of youth violence. Fingers of blame have been pointed at a variety of targets: the easy availability of guns; the growing number of troubled children from dysfunctional families; the bloody mayhem that passes for entertainment in so many movies and television programs.
And the paucity of proper values. Responding to the murderous rampage in Littleton, Colorado, the House of Representatives passed a bill allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school buildings. Vice President Gore and other prominent public figures from both sides of the political aisle have advocated government funding for churches and religious organizations to enlist their involvement in helping address the social pathologies that plague modern-day society.
Constitutionally controversial though these initiatives may be, they bespeak a widespread sense that the strengthening of values – old-fashioned religious values – is an essential component of an effective response to the problems of the day.
Which brings us to the musings of best-selling author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who devoted his June 22 New York Times op-ed essay to a lament over the insularity of Jerusalem’s haredi community, whose children attend "18th-century ghetto schools, where kids are given no math, science or computing skills that might prepare them for the future."
Writes Mr. Friedman:
"In Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim district, Israeli companies are designing the next generation of the Internet… Yet a mile away from Har Hotzvim, in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, wall posters now regularly appear warning residents not to have Internet-linked computers in their homes because of the worlds it might open. These ultra-Orthodox don’t like windows or Windows."
As a result of this cultural divide, says Mr. Friedman, Jerusalem has become "part Teheran, part Palo Alto." How to deal with the Teheranian sector? "Bring the fundamentalists into power, but set some real limits on them to force them toward modernity."
Let us put aside the offensiveness of Mr. Friedman’s overheated rhetorical flourishes – an admittedly difficult task, especially at a moment when the real Teheran is threatening to execute 13 Iranian Jews. Let us also put aside the dreary monochromatic portrait he paints of haredi schools – misleading though that portrait may be. Let us focus instead on the absence of any attempt on the pundit’s part to consider why the haredim are so resistant to the forces of modernity, so insistent on the virtues of insularity.
It’s not as if Mr. Friedman is oblivious to the dangers of our Information Age society. In his June 1 Times op-ed piece, for example, Mr. Friedman eloquently presents the case for what he calls "the most important thing parents need to understand about preparing their kids for the Internet world": that without a solid grounding in moral values, children who explore the Worldwide Web are at extreme risk. In his own words:
"With one mouse click you can wander into a Nazi beer hall or a pornographer’s library, and no one is there to stop or direct you. . . The only really effective filters are the values, knowledge and judgment that your kid brings to the Web in his or her own head and heart. . .Unless parents are building kids with sound fundamentals, Lord only knows what can happen."
Why Mr. Friedman’s relentless hostility, then, to those in the Holy City who want their children to know only the Lord? And why his silent sanguinity about the breakdown in values that has infected the secular corner of Israeli society?
To be sure, isolating one’s children from the broader society has its costs. At the same time, exposing one’s children to the broader society has its risks. Striking the proper balance between building barriers and opening windows is one of the greatest challenges parents face.
In attempting to strike that balance, haredim look for guidance to the sources and ideals of the Jewish religious tradition. If Mr. Friedman and like-minded folk are not inclined to look in that direction, they might do well to reflect upon the anguished faces in East Talpiot.
[David Zwiebel serves as Agudath Israel of America’s executive vice president for government and public affairs]
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