Requiem for a Headline
If it was possible to make last week’s kidnapping and grisly murder of Menachem Stark, a New York real estate developer, landlord and Satmar chasid, any worse, the New York Post managed to do it. On the front page of its Sunday edition, beside a large photo of Stark — which featured him with a beard, side curls and wearing a long black coat and a Chasidic-style fur-trimmed hat — ran the headline: “Who Didn’t Want Him Dead?”
Stark’s charred body was found in a dumpster on Jan. 3 in Great Neck, Long Island. According to the report, Stark, a father of eight, was involved in several “shady” real-estate deals and was heavily in debt.
More than the accusatory allegations or the heinous murder itself, what seemed to arouse the greatest anger among Jews was the headline. We agree that even for an edgy tabloid like the Post, the headline was offensive, callous and reflected poor journalistic judgment.
The headline and accompanying story also came painfully close to justifying Stark’s murder, a complaint the Post responded to this week: “The Post does not say Mr. Stark deserved to die, but our reporting showed that he had many enemies, which may have led to the commission of this terrible crime,” a representative said. That statement — which failed to include an apology for poor journalistic judgment and which was made without factual backup or citation to specific evidence — is also offensive, as it seeks to shift blame for the murder to the victim.
Even if Stark had an “enemies list a mile long,” as the Post maintained, certainly his wife, children, family and friends could be counted among those who “didn’t want him dead.” A sincere apology by the Post would have been in order.
But whatever words you choose to describe the offensive headline, we do not believe that it was anti-Semitic. And to the extent that accusation has also been leveled at the Post, we do not believe it is justified. Stark was a Chasidic Jew. The picture of him reflected that. Beyond his self-identifying outward Jewish appearance, there did not appear to be anything in the headline or in the article itself that reflected an anti-Jewish bias or animus. While some may be uncomfortable at the sight of a religious Jew on the cover of a paper relating to a story involving an ugly murder, the fact is that Stark was a Chasidic Jew, and that’s how the newspaper represented him.
When Jews make the news in ways that are not especially pleasant or complimentary, we need to be careful not to automatically attribute the report to anti-Semitism. As we have noted before, there are, unfortunately, many instances of anti-Semitism that need to be exposed and called out. Let’s save the label for when it is appropriate and deserved. Misuse of the term and the charge only serves to rob the designation of its seriousness and power.