The Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper, Der Zeitung, published the now iconic photograph of President Obama and his team watching as events unfolded in the Pakistan raid which killed Osama Bin Laden, but they did so with two notable changes – they removed both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the only other woman in the shot, Audrey Tomason. That kind of manipulation, not only violates the terms under which the White House makes such images available to the press, but suggests some real problems with the paper and its readership which presumably supports such manipulation.
To fully address the question of why they did this, the staff of the Yiddish language paper issued a lengthy statement, excerpted here:
“In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status... All Government employees are sworn into office, promising adherence to the Constitution, and our Constitution attests to our greatness as a nation that is a light beacon to the entire world. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That has precedence even to our cherished freedom of the press! … Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”
That understanding of sexual modesty is pretty extreme even relative to other members of the Ultra-Orthodox community, but that is not the real issue here. For starters, the publishers of the paper confuse what they have the right to do, with what is right to do.
Without entering a protracted debate about modesty or what Jewish law does and doesn’t allow, their statement fails to recognize that in exercising their right to edit the photo (they claim that White House policy forbid such editing), they needed to assume a related obligation – to inform their readership that they were looking at a re-touched image. In failing to make that clear, the editors avoided a very real challenge for themselves and for their community.
The manipulation of the photo makes it clear that those who read this paper need “facts” which conform to their beliefs, and when those facts are not available, they alter the real ones to conform to their beliefs. That’s not simply bad journalism or a violation of fundamental ethics; it’s actually dangerous for the community itself. No community, at least in America, will succeed for long if they cannot at least appreciate and make sense of what is actually going on around them.
It is also interesting to note that extreme discomfort with the presence of women or even images of women is common to virtually all totalitarian religious communities, regardless of the tradition involved. And in this case especially, it’s not something of which the editors of the paper should be proud.
Among the things for which radical Islam is most well known is its harsh repression of women’s rights. And while there are vast differences between how women function in the most conservative versions of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, the fact that both are often lead by men who seem utterly panicked by the presence of women in public life is only going to be highlighted by the paper’s actions.
The fact that they Photoshopped the image reminds us that even the most inward-looking communities can be technologically sophisticated. Technological sophistication has been shown, in some studies, to be inversely proportional to a community’s degree of religious openness.
The issue is not having technological capacity; it’s the ends to which we use that capacity. Communities may become increasingly sophisticated about keeping the world at bay, and even at using technology to do so, but ultimately that approach fails all those who avail themselves of it.
Of course, we all have versions of Der Zeitung’s editing process going on in our own lives – wanting to see the world as we would like it to be instead of how it really is. No, not as extreme for most of us, but if it weren’t a powerful impulse the news industry, especially on TV and radio would look quite different. If this story reminds us of how foolish that approach is, this Hasidic paper did us, if not themselves, a favor.