The gadfly activist Shraga Stern has built quite the media profile for himself of late. It is amazing what a combination of ghostwriting, photobombing and sock-puppetry can achieve in the smoke-and-mirrors world of haredi “shtadlanus”, or lobbying. What is abundantly clear, nonetheless, is how much Stern’s attempts to position himself as the new Face of Frumkeit have upset those who crafted the present strategy: the goal of which is to ensure the minimum of supervision and intervention from secular authorities concerned with civil liberties, secular education and the rule of law.
Stern has indicated his support for the “Values Foundation”, the bland-sounding name of a new organisation intended to bring together religious conservatives of all faiths in order to oppose the teaching of citizenship and relationship education, in particular any that relates to lesbian, gay and transgender people. His donations to the anti-gay protests in front of Birmingham primary schools and his inclusion in the delegation to the Schools Minister Nick Gibb – which, astonishingly, also included rabbis who provided approbations for a pamphlet endorsing the beating of schoolchildren – are now a matter of record.
Stern’s attempt to broker a deal with the Corbynists has failed. We don’t know what quid pro quo he had to offer the ruling clique in Labour, but it is not unreasonable to assume that it was a promise to provide a visibly Jewish figleaf and perhaps a communal block vote in return for looking the other way on illegal schools and SRE. His conduct, including attacking the officially sanctioned ChinuchUK lobbying group, has enraged the leadership of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Stern has also upset a more complex advocate for the haredi communities, Eli Spitzer.
Spitzer is the headmaster of a haredi school and is a reasonable, urbane spokesman, with appearances on the Victoria Derbyshire show and a number of columns in the Jewish Chronicle to his credit. Spitzer understands, at least in part, the nature of the challenge that Haredi society faces. He says:
“[I]t’s not OK that men in my community emerge from 15 years of schooling unable to read English, unable to write grammatically in any language, unable to understand basic mathematics and science, and, distressingly often, unable to speak English fluently.”
Poor education is, indeed, an important issue in itself. But it is merely one symptom of a broader, fundamental problem. It is necessary to take a further step and consider the cause: the comprehensive de-skilling of haredi men and women, to the point at which they are unable to live an autonomous life, within or outside haredi communities. Without access to the full benefits of education and to the basic facts about life and the legal rights of British citizens, many haredim suffer terrible consequences. The imposition of total ignorance about sex, in particular, is neither a viable nor a sustainable strategy. Spitzer is wrong to think that it is. To focus exclusively on the quality of education in haredi communities underestimates the extent of the problems and prevents them being tackled effectively.
At the heart of the issue is the question of autonomy. Spitzer sees the problem, at least in part. He is right to conclude that Stern is an extremist and an opportunist. In a recent blog post, Spitzer bemoans the ease with which such people are able to position themselves as representatives of the community he loves. But it is important to understand why it is so easy for self-appointed spokesmen, such as Stern, to gain credibility.
Spitzer appreciates that draconian social controls result in timidity and that unlimited power inevitably fails the test of leadership. He understands why haredim fail to speak out: that it is hard for men to do so, but impossible for women. He clearly comprehends that people fail to raise their voices because they know that they would be punished for doing so. He agrees that they have been systematically educated not to challenge authority and to fear the consequences if they do. A diverse and open haredi culture would produce a multitude of viewpoints and open debate. A closed culture does not. In such an environment, Young Turks like Stern – with the status and resources to run his own campaigns – are the only ones able to establish themselves as ‘community leaders’.
Spitzer is right to want to protect the lifestyle choices of haredim. However, he is wrong to dismiss the arguments of critics, whose concerns go beyond those of poor secular education. In particular, he rubbishes whistleblowers, the disenchanted and “do-gooders” from outside the community. He denies that homophobia and discrimination exist within it. In maintaining this position, he does a terrible disservice to the people he wishes to help.
Nahamu does not want to stop haredim being haredi or to encourage people to leave their communities. The haredi way of life is valuable to many who live in such communities and it would be a tragedy were it precipitously to cease to exist. Rather, Nahamu was set up to ensure that harms caused by inward-facing extremism are recognised and addressed, rather than swept under the carpet: as they have been in other ethnic and faith communities, most scandalously within the Catholic Church. We would have nothing to say and no evidence to present without those brave people inside the community who come to us to tell their stories. We gather the information that is needed to substantiate the concerns that they raise and ensure action is taken. These people are often very influential within their communities and cannot speak out without the very real threat of retribution, loss of livelihood and social ostracism. They do not wish to stop being haredi – they just believe, as we do, that to be haredi is not to be a criminal or a bystander to dysfunction and harm.
An accusation of “mesirah” (informing), was recently made against a leading public face of the haredi communities. Such a charge is not a joke. It can and has had serious, occasionally violent repercussions. We must all recognise that community members who are moved to stand against injustice may sometimes carry an enormous financial and emotional cost. People who are forced to leave the community in order to gain control over their own lives can even lose their children. Even to attempt to obtain an education that can result in reasonable employment prospects can involve flouting deeply held and strictly enforced religious strictures, and so may result in social sanction.
We must recognise that the prospects of many haredim are stymied not just by a lack of education, but by a fundamental lack of autonomy. This is not about being discontented or maladjusted, or having one’s cake and eating it. It is not about addressing not the manufactured concerns of activists, but about recognising that many in the haredi communities suffer genuine and serious injustice.
Eli Spitzer can and should be part of the solution to the challenges which haredi society faces. He is a serious voice and should be listened to. But it is essential that we all focus not on one symptom, but on the problem as a whole: the denial of autonomy within such communities.