Another day, another controversy…

“It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor.
— Eric Hoffer

It’s so hard to believe another week – nearly another month – has already gone by. I’m shifting gears bit, again, this weekend. There are so many things going on politically, socially, culturally, and I am having a hard time just settling on one or two or four to write about this week.

So instead, I’m going to risk more controversy than I normally do (I think) to talk about a somewhat local issue, but one that, perhaps, others have had variations of. And even if you haven’t, I’m curious to hear how you view this. And to see if anyone has a good feel, sociologically, for why a different group that I’ll get to later, in another part of the state, does not have similar issues.

By way of background:

There is, a bit south of where I live, a Satmar Hasidic community that exists as an incorporated village within a larger town (this is confusing, but normal in NY state – cities,villages & hamlets exist within towns, which exist within counties). Formed from land purchased in the mid-1970’s, it has grown rapidly, and expanded its boundaries whenever it could. The controversies swirling around this village, and its neighboring communities, is rooted in the rural, and exurban, nature of those communities. To put it bluntly, the Satmar community needs a city, but the surrounding communities don’t want one. The community is what is commonly referred to as Ultra-Orthodox Jewish. They are a very closed community with strong adherence to religious law. They have their own internal issues, which have occasionally played out in the public arena – even using the courts on occasion. They marry young, stay close to home, and have large families. As a result they have built a community consisting mainly of apartment blocks, with most things within walking distance because their religion prohibits them from driving, working, or using modern conveniences of any sort during the Sabbath. And most women do not drive. The surrounding communities, although not isolated (and is even the location of some significant outlet shopping), is largely made up of low-density, often high-acreage, single family housing, interspersed with woods and farmland.

There is currently much hand wringing, and lawsuit filing, over the outcome of a recent bid to legally expand the boundary of the village through a process known as annexation. A simplistic explanation of annexation is that someone associated with the village in some way buys property in neighboring communities – preferably even has someone from the community living there. When enough neighboring land has been acquired, and the necessary agreement obtained from the land owners, a motion is filed to annex the property from whatever locality it is currently in, and to move it to the village where it will be no longer be restricted to the original locality’s zoning laws. Of course, there are environmental impact studies required, which are inevitably challenged, and a few other legal hurdles – plus some additional ones if the land in question currently belongs to another village rather than an unincorporated portion of a neighboring town. Well, in a very recent case, the village sought to annex two parcels of land. The town approved the smaller one, but not the larger. The village is unhappy, and litigious, that the very desirable second parcel was not approved, and eight surrounding villages and towns, plus the county, plus a couple of preservation and environmental groups are challenging the approval of the smaller parcel.

The very real problem, and the elephant in the room? anti-Semitism. I’m not naive enough to believe that there isn’t some, possibly quite a bit, of it about. And the sheer difference in belief, in lifestyle – we always fear that which isn’t like us. The village doesn’t always make a good neighbor, either, because they want to protect themselves from the impure world outside, and that certainly only serves to emphasize the differences. But the oft-repeated charge made in response to every expansion challenge is “Anti-Semitism” – and that’s a very bad thing (just look at the most recent GOP debate with the candidates jumping over themselves to proclaim their love and support for Israel). Not only does no one want to be considered a bigot, but there is a very large voting block that the politicians need to keep in mind also. So all of the other concerns can be neatly tabled and ignored because none of it would be an issue if not for Anti-Semitism. Powerful accusation that.

I am not at all impacted by any of this – no matter how big the village gets, it is physically impossible for it to ever reach the area where I live which is too far away, and which has no town water supply, or sewage system, so it cannot support high-density housing. But I often find myself pondering some of the bigger questions that are at the root of the problem.

The biggest question is the most basic, and very hard to answer – how much responsibility do the surrounding communities have to the needs of their neighbor? When does the village’s unending need for more space (and in theory it would be unending) become a true infringement on the surrounding communities? Does the surrounding area continue to be gobbled up and the current residents pushed out? Does stopping that expansion amount to a type of discrimination? The unfortunate reality is that based on the 2008 census figures, the village had the highest poverty rate in the nation, and 40% of the residents received food stamps. Factoring in a high rate of special needs children, the water and sewage treatment needs of a growing community, and the somewhat surprising fact that the median age in the village is only 13.2 years old, it is even easier, I think, to see why the surrounding communities are concerned. But, if there is land available, is it morally right to fight so hard to keep the village confined to its existing borders? And what happens when they cannot grow any further – do they move to another area with low population and start over? I honestly don’t know the answer, but watching this unfold over the years has made me a bit more sympathetic those on both sides of the Mexican border. And on a more constitutional level – does it violate the first amendment to have an incorporated locality that exists purely for religious segregation? Of course, that question is easy because it does, but hard because, on paper, there is no discrimination against the outside communities.

What I do know is that it’s a difficult problem, and one that may be impossible to solve to the satisfaction of all concerned parties.

On the other hand, there is a part of New York state to my north that has a fairly sizable Amish population. Now, there too you have a religiously based closed community of large families, with beliefs that require them living pretty much in the early 19th century – no automation, no electronics, no synthetic fibers, no buttons or zippers. They are primarily agrarian, though, and support themselves by farming and selling craftwork (mainly quilts and woodwork) to outsiders.

Although there has been some conflict with their neighbors – those horse-drawn buggies really are a public menace for the cars on the road –  the level of controversy falls far short of that concerning the Satmar Hasidim. And I wonder why.

Is it simply because they live an agrarian lifestyle, and therefore fit in better with their neighbors own lifestyles? Is it because their reliance on any form of public assistance is very low – a fact that may change if large factory farming continues to choke out their livelihood. Is it because they are Christian, and therefore not that different for the majority of their neighbors?

I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I think part of it does lie in the level of perceived differences. Although wildly different, the Amish farm in a rural area, and they share similar religious beliefs with their neighbors – if not actual churches. Which of course brings us back to the thorny question of anti-Semitism. How much of the issues facing the Satmar community are anti-semitic in nature – are they simply too different to be tolerated? How much of it is of the community’s leadership’s own making? Do they bully their neighbors by immediately calling every concern discriminatory? Surely the fault lies somewhere in the middle, and as an outsider, I think it may well skew toward the leadership of the village. There have been a few high-profile welfare and Medicaid frauds unearthed, there has been some blatant disregard for the law, they’ve buried the identity of property purchasers several layers deep, but most alarmingly, there is no compromise in their position – the village needs to keep growing. And then we bounce back to the question of whether fighting the expansion is discriminatory. And I get frustrated because I can see the problems, and the causes, but I can’t see a path to a positive outcome.

I’m wondering if anyone else can?


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