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In Defense of Zachary Evans: A Reply to David French

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In a recent edition of his “French Press” newsletter, published by The Dispatch, our friend and former co-worker David French criticizes National Review news writer Zachary Evans for his report on the backlash against ultra-Orthodox Jews who have settled in Rockland and Orange counties in upstate New York. My respect for David is great, but his criticism is unjustified.

The criticism is twofold. First, David finds “jarring” Zack’s quotation of a source who compared the ultra-Orthodox to locusts and accused them of stripping resources from communities. Well, yes, it is jarring. That’s the point, no? I understand that it can be jarring to read a “dehumanizing” (David’s accurate description) remark about a community — and that it’s particularly jarring if the community is one’s own — but the quotation presented an attitude that, in fact, exists in Rockland County. It was self-evidently relevant to the article’s topic. The article included other quotations characterizing opposition to ultra-Orthodox development as anti-Semitic, not that Zack’s critics have bothered to mention that. A news story is not a “platform” for its sources, and averting one’s gaze will not make a problem disappear. Shall we take a hard look at what is, or pretend it isn’t? I would rather be jarred and understand the reality of a painful or alarming situation than have my feelings spared and mistakenly believe things are better than they are.

The second part of David’s criticism is that Zack’s emphasis is wrong. David writes: “There’s [a] key sentence in the [Evans] article: ‘There is no indication that [the Jersey City and Monsey attackers] attacked Jewish targets for reasons related to outmigration from New York City to the surrounding region.’ So why the extensive focus on the thing that doesn’t seem material to the attacks?”

If David had quoted the following sentence, which is also key, he would have answered his own question. That sentence reads: “Yet the attacks have rattled ultra-Orthodox in those areas nonetheless, owing in part to preexisting disputes between some ultra-Orthodox communities and the neighboring non-Jewish population in those areas.” Zack is of course not the first to report this; that very sentence links to another news article, in another publication, saying much the same.

So, yes, the outmigration is not “material to the attacks” in the sense of having caused or justified them; but it is material to ultra-Orthodox fears of violence amid rising community tensions. And that is what I take Zack to have written about. David might have preferred to read a piece focused on the attacks themselves, but “You did not write the article I wanted you to write” is, in this context, a trivial complaint. News of the attacks has not, after all, been ignored or overshadowed, and a perusal of Zack’s archive shows that he himself has written repeatedly about anti-Semitic violence.

David also writes:

As I read Evans’s piece, I had a singular thought: He’s waving away the mountain and focusing on a pebble. He’s missing the ocean for the puddle. People do not launch machete attacks over zoning disputes. They don’t open fire in kosher supermarkets because their new neighbors don’t make good salaries. There might be “simmering local conflicts” over zoning (welcome to America; there are always “simmering local conflicts” over zoning), but none of that is truly relevant to deadly violence.

Again, Zack’s article does not say that zoning disputes are “relevant to deadly violence.” Rather, it maintains that they are relevant to the fears of a community that has been the target of deadly violence. Maybe David finds that topic to be a pebble and a puddle. I do not. I challenge readers who think it insignificant to watch the anti-ultra-Orthodox campaign video released by the Rockland County GOP. Yes, it’s about a zoning dispute. That doesn’t preclude it from being revoltingly anti-Semitic, and therein lies its significance in the wake of anti-Semitic violence even though it cannot be said to have caused that violence.

David ends with some moving reflections on “people building a home”: “When [Evans] described the way that ultra-Orthodox build their houses close together, how they vote together to protect their interests, and how they devote their time to religious studies, one word came to mind — home.” Just so. I read Zack’s piece largely as an article about people building a home and encountering bigotry while doing so. The conventions of news writing perhaps made it difficult to say that as clearly as one might have done in an opinion piece. But I hope that David and anyone else who was troubled by the article will give it another read with these thoughts in mind. I believe that if they do so, many will find it to be not only excellent but important.

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