The Media Assault on Large Families
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 21, 2003
Every tragedy involving a chareidi child in Israel receives wildly disproportionate media attention. The implicit, and often the explicit, message of the media stories is often that Torah observance and good parenting do not go together.
Two months ago, after a six-year-old girl was left in van for 18 hours, after her family returned very late at night to Ofakim from a family simcha, the Israeli media seized upon the case to advance one of its favorite prescriptions for the chareidi population: smaller families. (The little girl in question was one of twelve children.)
A banner headline in the weekend Yediot Aharonot proclaimed: ``The father remembered that he had left his hat, but his daughter he forgot." The implication was clear: the father cared more about his hat than his daughter.
Other commentary was even more vicious. One reader of Yediot wrote, ``Who cares if you lose a child here and there if there are still another 11." Secular parents were quick to congratulate themselves that their children benefit from greater love since ``it is not divided by 11," as if parental love is a finite quality.
In that case at least, the Hashgacha quickly demonstrated how ridiculous was the claim that such things do not happen to those whose love is not divided by 11. The day before the Ofakim tragedy, a young child fell to his death out of an unbarred 11th floor window in Beersheba, and the day after a mother of three left her infant locked in the car in her rush to get to a dentist appointment.
Though the latter two cases were reported, they occasioned no social prescriptions like the chareidi tragedy nor any of the same venom. The same was true a few years back when there were a series of cases in which cars were stolen (in at least one case by Palestinians) with children in them because their parents had run off to do a quick errand and left the car keys in the ignition.
Yet any fair-minded assessment of the tragedy in Ofakim would have concluded that the parental culpability was far less than the other cases described (even though not all of the latter ended in tragedy.) The chareidi parents did not ignore an obviously dangerous situation, like an unbarred window, nor did they do anything reckless, like leaving a child in a car with the keys in the ignition. The little girl’s absence was not immediately noted only because the sibling with whom she shared a room had already fallen asleep on the couch and thus the father did not enter her room and see that her bed was empty. And again the next morning, her absence was not noticed because older siblings got everyone ready for school while the father was davening and the mother slept. In short, the terrible tragedy proved nothing, absolutely nothing, about the quality of the parenting of the nifteres.
AT LEAST, IN THE OFAKIM CASE there was some superficially plausible connection between the family’s large size and the tragedy: the likelihood of forgetting a child may well increase with the number of children. Last week’s media frenzy, however demonstrates that when it comes to chareidi parents the media is totally irrational.
The trigger this time was the news that two babies had died from beriberi and at least ten more had become seriously ill after being fed Remedia soy-based baby formula. Though at no point was there any statistics presented that the number of chareidi infants affected was higher than their percentage of the infant population, somehow the Remedia scare was linked in a number of news reports, including the New York Times, to Orthodox childrearing practices.
Leading the charge was Avirama Golan in Ha’aretz who singled out chareidi women as unwitting victims of their own naivete and consumerism. Describing Remedia’s advertising efforts, she wrote, ``Thus did thousands buy the ``dangerous, albeit kosher, formula." With that wording, Golan implied that chareidi mothers were more concerned with the products kashrut than with the danger to their children.
That, of course, is nonsense for the obvious reason that there was absolutely no connection between the kashrut of the product and the danger posed. Had the German manufacturer of the formula not left out vitamin B1 (perhaps in the mistaken belief that the soy itself contained sufficient B1), the formula would have posed no health danger.
Though anonymous officials in the Health Ministry speculated that the B1 had been removed due to kashrut concerns, that claim had no basis. Thousands of kosher products on the market contain vitamin B1, which is almost all produced from vegetable sources. And the office of Rabbi Landau, who certified Remedia’s soy-based formula, denied that he had ever requested the removal of vitamin B1 from the formula.
Golan also charged that chareidi women preferred Remedia’s soy-based formula because of concerns with chalav akum. But that allegation too is baseless. There are numerous chalav Yisroel formulas on the Israeli market, with no less good kashrus certification than the Remedia soy formula. If anything, the chareidi mothers who spent much more for a soy-based formula than for its milk-based counterpart did so because they had heard from many sources that there is a lower incidence of allergic reactions to soy formula than to milk formula. Rather than showing a preference for kashrut over their children’s health, the choice of Remedia soy-based formula demonstrated mothers’ willingness to spend from their meager resources on products that they believed to be safer.
WHAT CAN POSSIBLY EXPLAIN THE MEDIA ATTENTION generated by tragedies involving chareidi children, or even those where there is only the slightest whiff of a chareidi angle. The first factor, I suspect, lies in the fact that chareidm are the most notable dissenters from the dominant Western ethos that ``small is beautiful" when it comes to family size. Three years ago, Time Magazine ran a full article in its European edition (birthrates for non-Muslim women in Western Europe are far below the replacement rate) on two instances in which children from large families in Israel were accidentally left in cars on family outings and suffocated. The author, Lisa Beyer, wife of well-known chareidi basher Zev Chafetz, used those two cases to demonstrate that Orthodox parents are unable to properly raise their children.
Curiously absent from the article, however, were any statistics on the chances of a chareidi child to reach maturity compared to secular child, or for that matter any comparison of the rates of self-destructive behavior – drinking, eating disorders, self-mutilation, suicide – between children from chareidi homes and those from secular homes. Beyer did not suggest that secular Israel parents are unfit for parenthood, despite two cases at the time, in which secular parents immolated their own children. Nor did she call for smaller Arab families despite a rash of weekend drownings involving young Arabs throughout the summer. Only Orthodox parents of large families came in for her criticism.
The antipathy towards large chareidi families, and the efforts to prove that smaller families are somehow better for children, reflect an attempt to evade the feelings of guilt by many of those who opt out of having children or raise only small families. Many such secular parents recognize that their choice of a small family results from a much greater degree of self-centeredness than their own parents, and they seek to assuage those guilt feelings with ``evidence" that small families are happier or more loving.
In addition, every tragedy in a chareidi family is magnified by the media as a means of avoiding confronting the complete breakdown of parental authority in secular families. Evidence of that breakdown is all around us – in the dismal educational performance of Israeli students, who seem to have abandoned the traditional Jewish role as ``the people of the Book," the high rates of school violence, findings of the ennui of Israeli secular teenagers and their indulgence in a wide range of self-destructive behaviors.
Ironically, then, the ludicrous attempts to discredit chareidi parenting derive from secular parent’s suspicion that we still possess parental resources that they have lost.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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