There was a disturbing lack of balance in the reporting on the recent controversy concerning bus drivers being asked to work on Thanksgiving to transport Lakewood yeshiva students scheduled to attend school that day. For obvious reasons, anything that highlights differences between Jewish and non-Jewish observances needs to be handled with great sensitivity. Thankfully, the issue has been resolved. But the media’s singular focus – devoid of context – on the purported plight of drivers being forced to work on their holiday was unfortunate and merits scrutiny.
The Associated Press headlined a story “Bus Drivers Asked to Transport Jewish Students on Thanksgiving,” and began the report with:
Thanksgiving might be just another day on the road for school bus drivers in one New Jersey town.
Lakewood is asking drivers to work in order to transport 18,000 Orthodox Jewish students to and from their private schools in the township.
On its website, WCBS (Channel 2) headlined the story “N.J. School Bus Drivers Balk At Having To Work On Thanksgiving” and led with the following:
Forced to work on Thanksgiving? A school bus fight in New Jersey is pitting drivers against parents.
CBS 2’s Derrick Dennis talked with some drivers who said they would rather give up their jobs than their holiday.
School bus drivers in Lakewood, finishing their rounds, say “no thanks” to some holiday humbug which involves working on Thanksgiving.
“Who’s gonna work on Thanksgiving? I’m not,” bus driver Bill Fitzgerald said.
These themes were typical. One would think there was something downright un-American going on. What did not come through were some very significant parts to the story. In the school district at issue there are some 25,000 students – 18,0000 of whom attend private Orthodox schools that were scheduled to hold classes on Thanksgiving. So these students were not exceptions to the rule, they were the rule.
In addition, under New Jersey law private-school students in the state are entitled to free transportation to and from their educational facilities “when the non-profit nonpublic school is in session.” In order to accomplish this, the school district contracts with private bus companies specifically to transport the nonpublic school students.
So despite intimations to the contrary, what was involved in the controversy was not some mindless, parochial nastiness but at worst a request that people meet their contractual obligations – which were clearly understood to include service on legal holidays.
But there is a broader dimension to our concern. Why was it that the Lakewood story became a big deal when the media have virtually ignored a more significant one relating to major retailers requiring their employees to work on Thanksgiving? Sears and Walmart stores will be open for business on Thanksgiving this year. And with the expectation that the number of Black Friday shoppers will increase from 212 million last year to 225 million this year, retailers are trying to outdo each other in opening earlier and earlier Friday morning. Indeed, Toys “R” Us is opening at 10 o’clock Thursday night and Target will open at midnight.
Because of our special practices, Jews will always be vulnerable to charges that we are different and therefore subversive. The fact that some streams in the Orthodox community choose not to partake in the outer trappings of Thanksgiving has no bearing on the gratitude they feel to this country and what it means for Jews. They are loyal Americans and certainly appreciate the key role America continues to play in their survival. That element was noticeably missing from the coverage of the Lakewood school bus controversy.