Accusations of anti-Orthodox and anti-Semitic incitement cast a shadow over last week’s Teaneck municipal elections, and one township council candidate found himself at the center of the storm.
An article in the May issue of the Englewood-based Jewish Voice & Opinion alleged that Joseph Steinberg had a close political relationship with current council member Barbara Ley Toffler, who, the article alleged, has an “anti-observant animus, verging on outright anti-Semitism.” The article quoted an anonymous source who cast Steinberg as Toffler’s surrogate. These allegations, Toffler suggested to The Jewish Standard on Monday, contributed to Steinberg’s failed run.
“Joseph was in a very awkward position,” she said. “You have to make a connection with the different groups in town, but I do think it contributed to him leaving enough of the community very, very unsettled about who he was.”
|Joseph Steinberg ran for Teaneck’s township council and lost, amid allegations that he is anti-Orthodox.|
The article pointed to a 2007 column in The New York Times by Peter Applebome called “Our Towns; Proudly Diverse Teaneck Is Forced to Re-examine Its Assumptions.” Applebome quoted Toffler as saying, “People worry that there’s a group that wants this to become an Orthodox community like some of the ones in Rockland County. This has always been an incredibly diverse community, and from my perspective, I don’t want it to become any one thing.”
Jewish Voice editor Susan Rosenbluth wrote in her May issue that Toffler “never apologized for her suggestion that observant Jews were trying to take over Teaneck and turn it into ‘Monsey’….”
In defense of her article, Rosenbluth told the Standard that Steinberg had refused to condemn Toffler’s statement, which she said, would never be tolerated if it had been about the African-American or gay communities.
“Diversity is a wonderful thing, but to say that because Orthodox people are moving into Teaneck that they’re trying to take over is outrageous,” she said.
Toffler told the Standard that she had alluded to the village of Kiryas Joel, a Satmar-run community in Orange County, and not Monsey.
“This whole thing was a nightmare for me,” she said. “I feel terrible for the Steinbergs.”
Steinberg condemned the Jewish Voice article and its impact on his campaign when he spoke with the Standard on Tuesday.
“The whole article had absolutely no merit in any way with regard to me,” he said. “Anybody who knows me and knows Barbara as well would see the same article and dismiss it. The issue with the article is most people in town do not know me. It caused confusion or contempt where there shouldn’t have been any.”
A few days before the May 11 election, Steinberg e-mailed an “Open letter to Teaneck’s Orthodox Community,” denouncing the article’s claims about him and labeling it part of a “smear campaign” that had created a “chillul HaShem,” a blaspheming of God’s name. He wrote that because the article relied on an anonymous source, it fell under the category of lashon hara, deceitful language.
“It was precisely this type of behavior that the Talmud says brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and led to nearly two millennia of exile and persecution,” he wrote. “The damage that has been done to the reputation of our community will last well beyond this election, and those who were involved with the current smear campaign owe an apology not only to me, but to the entire Jewish community.”
Rosenbluth defended her article against that accusation.
“When we’re talking about somebody who is running for public elected office … it is not lashon hara to report the truth,” she said.
Rosenbluth would not reveal the identity of her anonymous source, but said she knows the source personally.
Many people felt that Steinberg was Toffler’s surrogate, Rosenbluth said, and if he had won she would have had an ally on the council. If he lost, she added, Toffler could claim she had supported somebody from the Orthodox community.
“From that perspective I think Mr. Steinberg was naÃ¯ve,” Rosenbluth said. “And I’m willing to give him his naÃ¯vetÃ©.”
Tzvee Zahavy, a Teaneck resident who runs Tzvee’s Talmudic Blog, endorsed Steinberg on his site after the article and e-mail appeared. Another blog, Teaneck Talk, reposted the Jewish Voice article as well as an e-mail attacking Steinberg’s financial expertise. That e-mail circulated before Steinberg’s and prompted his response.
“Teaneck politics are junior high school quality,” Zahavy told the Standard. “They are characterized, unfortunately, by some people in our community stooping to rather immature tactics. I think Joseph was above that and, unfortunately, didn’t want to get down to that level. It’s like any other game; you’ve got to play at the level the others are playing, and they’re playing at a very low level in Teaneck politics.”
Teaneck Mayor Kevie Feit, whose term on the council ends on June 30 and who did not seek re-election, blamed people on both sides who, he said, “play up the differences between the Orthodox community and the rest of Teaneck.”
“Joseph is the type of person and the type of candidate who is trying to show it’s possible to move past that,” he told the Standard on Tuesday. “Certain people didn’t like that because it goes against what they’re trying to accomplish, which is to show it’s always ‘us versus them.'”
Steinberg placed sixth out of the nine candidates running for the four open seats. Though dismayed by the outcome, a week after the election he spoke about moving forward.
“I hope that the situation created by the negative activities during this election season will serve as a catalyst for positive change,” he said. “As I mentioned throughout the campaign, we must bring an end to the divisiveness in town that continues to waste our collective time, money, and energy.”
Councilman Elie Y. Katz, who won re-election last week, said he hoped people judged the candidates based on who they are and what they could do for the town.
“We’re a community,” he told the Standard, “and the only way to have better working relationships is for everyone to understand each other and try to work together and communicate with each other.”
Feit echoed Katz in a call for unity.
“We all want the same thing and the sooner we start working together,” Feit said, “the better off we’ll be.”