Dec 21, 2023 3:30 PM
Agudath Israel of America, an organization that lobbies for Haredi interests, is asking people to “know us” — but it’s increasingly unclear who exactly they want people to know.
Agudah’s original KnowUs campaign attempted to counter a series of New York Times articles about Haredi yeshivas. Now, in a new initiative, the organization is drawing a link between that coverage and a string of seemingly unrelated themes: widespread antisemitic speech, criticism of Israel, pro-Palestine protests, and violent assaults on Haredi people.
“KnowUs Take 2,” as Agudah calls it, was launched with a new video that suggests the 2022 series of New York Times articles is at least partly to blame for Jews being “under attack” following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. Those articles described inadequate secular education and corporal punishment at Hasidic boys’ schools, which, according to Agudah leaders, reflected a misunderstanding of the community and its customs. The KnowUs campaign also claimed the articles contributed to antisemitic attacks, and they are now doubling down on that message.
“Misinformation runs throughout the whole of the city, and a good piece of it started with the New York Times smear campaign,” Moyshe Silk, a founding board member of KnowUs, says in the video. The clip combines ominous music with footage from a wide range of events, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, footage of Haredi people being beaten on city sidewalks in Brooklyn, Nazi flags outside Disney World, and the aftermath of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.
New Jersey assemblyman-elect Avi Schnall, Agudah board member Chaskel Bennett, and other Agudah leaders appear in the video, all appearing to draw a connection between the 2022 New York Times articles and antisemitic attacks — without providing evidence.
“Once those attacks on our community happened in the written world, they now escalated in the physical world. Jews across the city were being harassed, ridiculed, cursed, and even beaten,” Schnall says in the video.
“What was once a small problem has now exploded,” Bennett says, and there is a “massive threat to the viability and future of the Jewish community.”
Agudah leaders also take issue with a set of New York Times articles they view as criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza, suggesting that Times coverage in those articles is related to a general atmosphere of hostility toward Jews. As if to highlight this atmosphere, the video presents images of a pro-Palestine rally at the Manhattan college Cooper Union, a man at a pro-Palestine protest wearing a keffiyeh, protesters chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and screenshots of news articles criticizing New York Times coverage.
In an interview at the recent Agudah convention, Avrohom Weinstock, who heads the KnowUs project, urged Haredi Jews to tell their representatives in Congress to support Israel financially and militarily as it continues to fight a war in Gaza. “It might be weapons, it might be money, whatever it might be,” he said.
Agudah is now urging people to contact their legislators and ask them to fight against antisemitism and “vigorously support Israel's ability and right to defend herself from terror.” According to the Agudah website, children can also use their form to contact legislators, using a parent’s email address.
Weinstock, who is the Associate Director of Education Affairs at Agudah, said in his interview that “KnowUs Take 2” was inspired by meetings between Agudah leaders and Congress members. “Agudas Yisroel members have been involved in many, many meetings with members of Congress, with senators, and there’s something that they have said consistently that they want and that could be helpful to them. They say, where are my constituents on this issue?”
The new initiative appears to be funded partly by the Harry H Beren Foundation ZB, a private foundation based in Denver, Colorado.
The first part of the KnowUs campaign was launched in January soon after the series of New York Times articles were published. Before switching its focus, the campaign’s most prominent projects included placing billboards in Midtown Manhattan, including one outside of the New York Times office, and sending a letter to judges of the Pulitzer Prize asking them not to award the Times for its yeshiva coverage. In its latest video, KnowUs takes credit for the New York Times failing to win a Pulitzer. “That, to us, was an extraordinary victory,” Bennett says.
Meanwhile, for the last few weeks, the organization has faced internal turmoil due to differing views on Israel and Zionism. Following the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, Agudah’s pro-Israel advocacy has put it at odds with some segments of the Haredi community, which oppose Zionism for its secular orientation. Those segments are represented by members of the organization’s own rabbinical advisory board, who voiced their dissent after the organization encouraged people to attend a pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C.
Reached by phone by Shtetl, Weinstock declined to comment.