Robes, Rules, and Rituals
The village of Kiryas Joel in Upstate New York has been in the headlines this month after residents there voted overwhelmingly to part ways with their neighbors in the Town of Monroe. The New York Times describes in detail how the two sides agreed to the split in a vote on Nov 7, ending years of conflict over zoning.
This seemingly amicable resolution is far from typical. In fact, there are about a hundred different diagnoses for what's to blame for our current universal state of discord: it’s 1968 all over again, we’re in a Cold Civil War, we’re entering the heyday of identitarianism. You can pick your poison. And for every diagnosis of civil society’s ills, there is a corresponding solution proposed.
Rod Dreher got a lot of traction with his recommendation - prescribed in his book, The Benedict Option - which suggests believers split off into (or at least focus on living in) their own isolated communities.
In Kiryas Joel, this self-isolation has already been happening. Local secular residents there have spent years going toe-to-toe with the Hasidic Satmar community of Jews that has been growing rapidly in population and political influence. Recently the JTA reported that “Voters in Monroe, New York, overwhelmingly backed a referendum on secession.”
This effectively means that the Satmar - a community of anti-modern, anti-Zionist Hasidic Jews - will break off into their own Yiddish-speaking community by somewhere around 2020.
Welcome to “Palm Tree,” formerly Kiryas Joel, the only town in the United States where Yiddish is the official language. With the Benedictine Option realized through this Satmar Solution, I find myself wondering three things: What would Rod Dreher make of all this? Will Kiryas Joel’s homogeneity and isolation be sustainable? And, is Yiddish really any harder to understand than the Louisiana creole slung around by gator-wranglers down the Bayou? Lache pas la patate, lache pas la patate, gatoh, gatoh gon’ eecha!
If you would, allow me a brief digression on secession, both local and national…
Catalonia can’t break away from Spain without Catalonian leader, Carles Puigdemont, being accused of being treasonous - which isn’t as bad as being called a “pedophile,” a label Puigdemont used to describe what he imagines the Spanish government must think of him to treat him so badly. (I personally would have used a less touchy analogy, like Spain is being dictatorial, or Spain is being a meanie pants, or even when Spain forcibly bars Catalonian independence, Spain is treating me like Harvey Weinstein treats the casting couch: as a means of physically supporting disgusting policies that should be reversed.)
The Kurdish independence movement was quashed lickety-split, too. Brexit looks like it will slog on to infinity and beyond, and Theresa May might very well turn into a pumpkin before the U.K. gets back its glass slipper.
A town of uber-religious Jews, however, has no problem carving out its own municipal sovereignty, smack dab in the middle of New York State. While the Kurds and Catalonians may forever clamor for their own slice of sovereign pie, a couple of bearded black-hats managed to pull off secession for Kiryas Joel/Palm Tree, a town founded a few years after WWII, as if they were getting an oil change. And I'm talking about a literal oil change for a car (not stretching for a Hanukkah metaphor here).
So why is dissolving the bonds of government-sanctioned unity so much easier for the Satmar than for nation states seeking a similar breakaway? And what does this experience say to independence movements?
In my opinion, absolutely nothing. I believe the Satmar experience is something that can only happen in America.
In the past, it's been the Jews’ "otherness" that made them a target which is the difficulty of applying Dreher’s solution to all Jews, especially European ones. A deep-set German pathology, for example, allowed a German appeals court to rule that “a violent attempt to burn the city’s Bergische Synagogue by three men in 2014 was a justified expression of criticism of Israel’s policies,” as the Jerusalem Post described the decision, and indicates that Jews will forever be on the outs in Deutschland.
The stupidity of that decision, by the way, is self-evident. All you need to do is swap out the subjects of the decision to reveal the embarrassingly facile reasoning of it. Imagine: A violent attempt to burn down Birmingham’s black First Baptist Church was a justified expression of criticism of Africa’s policies. How does that sound? Idiotic, because most blacks aren’t citizens of Africa, just as most German Jews aren’t citizens of Israel. Religion and nationhood are separate. Or so I thought we learned from the Dreyfus Affair…
European identity, though, is fixed. Outsiders never truly become insiders. Catalonians never stop being Catalonians. When there are secession movements here in the States, they’re based purely on the right-versus-left divide on political issues. Caricatures remain strong in our homeland. Californians are hippies and Texans are hicks - one group needs their ganja, the other their guns. But almost nobody born here has their politics imprinted in them as a defining feature of who they are, the way a born Catalonian is forever a Catalonian, or a Frenchman forever a Frenchman.
Secession movements in Europe are based completely on otherness. They are the "other" and we want to be separate from them.
On the flip side, the trend here in the United States is to deemphasize this otherness.
In Kiryas Joel v. Grumet in 1994, the Supreme Court struck down boundary lines drawn under New York’s village incorporation laws so that only the Satmar would be included within their town’s school district. Although the majority opinion written by Justice David Souter found the district boundaries violated the Establishment Clause (“by delegating the State's discretionary authority over public schools to a group defined by its character as a religious community”) what was more telling was Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent.
Nino departed from his fellow justices by deemphasizing religion and focusing on culture:
[A]ll [Kiryas Joel’s] residents also wear unusual dress, have unusual civic customs, and have not much to do with people who are culturally different from them...On what basis does Justice Souter conclude that it is the theological distinctiveness rather than the cultural distinctiveness that was the basis for New York State's decision? The normal assumption would be that it was the latter, since it was not theology but dress, language, and cultural alienation that posed the educational problem for the children.
Justice Scalia’s point was: Hey, if they’re different and they want to be separate, what the hell do we care? Even Souter’s opinion was based on his predilection for keeping religion out of the public square, not for keeping Jewish hands off the levers of government power.
This is all why identitarianism is antithetical to the American civic tradition: because it draws tribal lines in a nation whose first principles include lessening the emphasis on tribes…
…lost tribes included.