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Parsing The Posters

By Sam Sokol

How to tell if an extreme street poster represents the chareidi mainstream

“The chareidim are blaming us for the destruction of our own homes,” some Israelis were undoubtedly complaining last week when the news broke that a group of chareidi extremists had plastered walls in Bnei Brak with posters blaming the alleged desecration of graves in Ramle for the barrage of rockets from Gaza.

While the posters were issued in the name of the “gedolei Yisrael,” they did not contain the signatures of any rabbis, and a previously unknown group calling itself the Committee for Activities for the Rescue of the Graves of the Mishnaic and Talmudic sages of Nesher took credit for the broadsheets.

One poster, titled “The robbery must stop,” asserted that “because of the desecration of the graves of the Mishnaic and Talmudic sages at the Nesher building site and their removal from the earth, houses in Israel are felled and turned to dust from missile fire.”

Another poster, this one headed with the exclamation “Pursue and destroy!” states that “at this time when millions of Jews are endangered due to rocket fire in Israel . . . and many houses are destroyed and made into dust, we must look inward at ourselves.”

“Why has this disaster befallen us?” the poster’s authors asked, immediately claiming that it is due to “the destruction, in recent years, of Israel’s largest cemetery.”

Wall posters, or pashkevilim as they are known in Yiddish, serve an important function in an ultra-Orthodox society that has traditionally shunned television and other forms of mass media. Such posters are used to invite community members to events, announce deaths and other lifecycle events, and publicize rabbinic edicts.

Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a chareidi activist and the former unofficial spokesman of the staunchly anti-Zionist Eda Charedit organization, commented that such an extremist message must come from the fringes of the chareidi community and does not represent mainstream ultra-Orthodox thinking.

While he said that the desecration of graves is a “most serious matter” that concerns many chareidim and is not to be taken lightly, it is inappropriate to blame the country’s current security woes on the issue.

Moreover, he stated, the rabbinic leaders of his community “are not afraid to put their names on proclamations” and that “any poster on which the author is afraid to put his name and on which no names of gedolim are written” should not be taken seriously. Most chareidim, he asserted, know not to be taken in by such propaganda.

Avraham Zuroff, a former chareidi journalist, noted that while the names, and even the signatures, of chareidi leaders can be found on broadsheets, many times the poster’s message is a distortion of the quoted rabbi’s words, if not an outright fabrication. “Many pashkevilim take the words of rabbis out of the context in which they were uttered,” Zuroff told The Jerusalem Post.

It should be obvious from the quotes above that many, but not all, of the more extreme pashkevilim do not represent mainstream chareidi opinions. However, as these posters are still, despite the rising interest in chareidi Internet sites and glossy magazines, an important source of information within the community, it is hard for outsiders to parse which poster represents which faction. The factional nature of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy does not help to make differentiating between posters put up by different groups any easier for outside observers.

Due to the need for pashkevilim to attract attention, they have developed their own style and use of language, often inflammatory and extreme, meant to engage reader interest and get people to stop in the middle of the sidewalk and read their message. As such, even messages from mainstream groups tend to use extreme rhetoric at times.

Further compounding the issue of understanding the chareidim through their wall posters is the fact that a rising minority of chareidim, known as the new chareidim, disagree with many of the official positions of the community but are not posting their own missives outlining their new ideology, making it hard to gauge public opinion in this sector by the posters on their walls.

However, the pashkevilim are still a useful tool in understanding chareidim. Used as calls to action, announcements of events, and even for advertising, they offer a glimpse into an insular community that is only beginning to open up and confront modernity. v

Sam Sokol is currently researching a book on this topic, dealing with contemporary issues in Israeli ultra-Orthodox society through the lens of the pashkevil. He is working on this book together with popular chareidi blogger and commenter Rabbi Rafi Goldmeier, the author of the website LifeinIsrael.blogspot.com and will soon begin raising money on Kickstarter to pay for expenses, including research materials, access to pashkevil and photo archives, and a videographer to record interviews to be conducted in the course of writing the book. Inquiries can be directed to samuelsokol@gmail.com. The book, a multitouch interactive ebook for the Kindle Fire and iPad, is slated for publication in the latter half of next year.

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Posted by on December 1, 2012. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.