What lessons should the Jewish community learn from the Casey Review?

Posted on medium.com on Dec 7, 2016

I’ve already written on my reaction to the Casey Review, with a broad view on what it tells us about integration and community cohesion. Most reaction I’ve seen has been broadly negative to date, ranging from suspicion of a political agenda revealed in the framing to reframing the problem as one of class and social deprivation and playing down concerns about religion, though there are some more measured and positive responses coming through. The Jewish Labour Movement has now responded, with a predictable effort to place the blame squarely on a Tory Government in a post-Brexit world. So far, so partisan.

I am not affiliated with the JLM or, indeed, with the Labour Party (aside from wishing it were more relevant as an opposition under its current leader than elbows to an octopus). Unfortunately, in my view, its wish to advance its own political agenda by attacking the Government combines poorly with its choice to argue squarely from the territory of what the review refers to as the “coalition of the willing”. I have no wish to personally attack the author, Alex Goldberg, particularly as it appears we have many friends in common, but I must take issue with his argument. He does not appear to appreciate the role that religious extremism has played and is still playing in the disintegration of community cohesion and integration.

Goldberg points out that “the challenge of cohesion and potential tension points were best overcome through innovation, lateral thinking that enabled better connectivity and communication.”

That may well be the case, but what is it caused by? Bad “connectivity and communication”? Or the mobilisation of a religious narrative to explain social breakdown and focus it squarely on an enemy? I do not disagree with the characterisation of the social, geographic and generational divides. But the piece appears blind to the active and malign work of religious extremists, opting instead for a blinkered assumption of “the failure of the much discredited ‘prevent’ programme to counter radical extremism”. In fact, the narrative claiming that the Prevent programme is discredited and has failed is being pushed by the very religious extremists criticised in the review. Worse, it is being propagated unquestioned by many well-meaning liberals who appear unable to appreciate the agenda that is being assisted and are clearly uncomfortable dealing with the very real concerns of security.

Goldberg also criticises the review’s failure to explore the way jihadi groups recruit — but that is a small part of a much larger problem of extremism. Jihadis thrive in the fertile soil of religious conservatism and extremist revivalism — it is those groups which are undermining social cohesion and integration; jihadis are a symptom, not a cause. But religious conservatism has not sprung up since the Cantle Review. As Casey recognises, this has been fermenting for a generation, funded by Salafist and Deobandi groups in the Middle East and South Asia. Where is the recognition of this?

It is also an unfortunate choice to frame this as a critique from the Jewish community. Casey highlights two main issues for us, one being the protection of children from issues arising from religious extremism — clearly aimed at the timely focus on the behaviour of the haredi community in relation to unregulated schools — and the other being the systematic mistreatment of women by religious courts. Goldberg prefers to quibble over the phrasing of a reference to agunah, rather than point out that there is still a significant amount of work to be done to address discrimination against women by religious authorities — Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill being a case in point.

I don’t think Alex Goldberg really understands religious extremism. I don’t think he understands how it presents to the British Jewish community other than externally, via threats from jihadis. So I’m going to spell out, using the language of the Casey Review, exactly how religious extremism affects us in the community, with particular reference to extremism within our community. This will necessarily mean a certain amount of links and similarities being drawn which may not be as robust as I believe, but I think the scenarios that I lay out are worthy of consideration and could even, I dare say, constitute early warning signs. From my experience, none of these concerns are new. Indeed, they are quietly discussed in many forums and, occasionally, make it into the pages of the community press, generally driven by a scandal or a challenge to the authority of Chief Rabbi Mirvis. Naturally, there is a general reluctance to air concerns in front of the wider world and a preference to deal with things quietly and internally, as Casey notes:

“We heard numerous claims that some communities preferred to deal with such issues themselves, privately and did not want to ‘wash their dirty linen in public’. But from what we have seen and heard, this too often results in problems being ignored or swept under the carpet.”

Sweeping things under the carpet is a key tactic that works in favour of extremists, on the principle that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. This is because extremists have a strong interest in exploiting the good faith of others including, over the last twenty years, taking advantage of interfaith programmes to sanitise their programmes and advance their agendas. Casey states baldly that:

“Long-standing — and worsening — divisions in our society are being exploited by extremists, predators, and those seeking excuses to legitimise their hate.”

I agree — though I should point out immediately that Jewish education, rather than interfaith activity, is the main vector, just as advocacy and human rights have often been for Islamists. Extremism takes many forms and so does predatory behaviour. I’ve written before on my distrust of the kiruv(“outreach”) movements, their agenda, their religious extremism and their doublespeak. I’ve also acknowledged that, with Jewish extremism in the UK, violence is not part of the challenge — lawfare, intimidation and blackmail is more the nature of the beast. But when the political Islamist groups and kiruv organisations’ operating models are compared, the similarities become obvious:

“There is a substantial network of political Islamist groups — often describing themselves as advocacy and human rights organisations — which have developed and promoted narratives and a sense of grievance that attempt to undermine Western values and, by frequently accusing the state of persecuting Muslims and the Islamic faith, have sought to set Muslim citizens apart from the rest of society.”

Just to be clear about the similarities: both groups are essentially fans of theocratic government; in the case of the latter, a sort of Caliphate of the Gedolim, albeit without the same commitment to beheading (which will continue in the absence of a globally acknowledged and sovereign Great Sanhedrin, to be fair). I am not the only one who considers this highly problematic, rather than quaintly old-fashioned. Moreover, what is clear, within communities controlled along these lines, is that there is no lack of evidence of precisely the sort of behaviour that Casey criticises:

“There is a broad spectrum of behaviours at play between what might be described as cultural conservatism and acts that are clearly illegal. It is more straightforward to condemn criminal acts but more difficult to challenge or act on behaviours that fall into ‘grey’ areas along this spectrum — where one person’s arranged marriage is another’s forced marriage; where one person’s loving relationship is another’s coercive control; or where one person’s religious conservatism is another’s homophobia. We need an honest debate in society about this spectrum.”

An honest debate is precisely what I am arguing for. In a situation where considerable resources are being marshalled to bully and intimidate prospective leavers of the community, we should be very wary of enabling organisations which want to move us as a community more towards that model to mainstream themselves. But is this really what kiruv organisations want? Are they that similar to Islamist groups? A look at their operating rationale will suffice:

“Frequently funded through individual charitable donations, these groups’ business model is based on presenting a picture of persecution and oppression of Muslims in Britain, with a heavy-handed state blamed for all forms of inequality or obstacles faced by Muslims. Their messages push an extremist narrative that the West and the UK Government are systematically trying to subjugate and harm Muslims, establishing a security state that needs to be opposed at all costs.”

This paragraph could be rewritten to describe the underlying approach of kiruv organisations:

“Frequently funded through individual charitable donations, these groups’ business model is based on presenting a picture of danger and insecurity for Jews in Britain, with a decadent and permissive modern society blamed for all forms of social breakdown or obstacles faced by Jews. Their messages push an extremist narrative that secular society is systematically trying to subjugate and harm Jews and roll back freedom to observe the rules of ‘Torah Judaism’ that needs to be opposed at all costs.”

The pattern of similarity is clear to me, but if you haven’t followed me this far you probably should stop reading now, because this is where it gets into the territory of uncomfortable truths. These groups claim to be merely educating us out of love for Torah, but they have a clear, consistent agenda. Either intentionally or not, what they want is fundamentally wrongheaded and, in many ways, malign.

Organisations funded out of what is known as the yeshiva world actively promote haredi interpretations of Judaism (similar to the way Salafi organisations present their view as normative) via organisations like Aish ha-Torah and the Jewish Learning Exchange. The products of an influential, well-funded-by-charitable-donors haredi publishing house — Artscroll — is actively disseminated into mainstream orthodoxy, leveraging the need for ‘reliable’ translations for the less religiously educated. Casey’s insight applies across the board:

“We live in an inter-connected world, with inter-connected populations. Communities in the UK are umbilically linked through cultural, economic, social and demographic links to different parts of the world. What happens overseas impacts directly on UK communities, and vice-versa. We are unlikely to achieve integration in the UK if our approach does not reflect how people move across national boundaries and how their attitudes are influenced by others far beyond their home locations.”

The international “yeshiva world” is rarely criticised even by the rabbis of mainstream orthodoxy. But this worldview is one in which the “supremacy of ultra-conservative” Judaism is taken for granted. It may only be charismatic “hate preachers” such as Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi that are prepared to go on record as explicitly encouraging intolerant views, ranging from racism and hatred of other religions to homophobia, but these views are tacitly shared across the kiruv world and in much of the strictly orthodox community and cannot exist without funding and support from a large number of people who are neither observant nor, indeed, ultra-orthodox.

Supporters of Jewish extremists need not share every one of their views in exhaustive detail; they may simply look the other way because the people and organisations concerned are “bringing people back to Judaism”. I know this, because I have lived in many of these communities for years and still do. And it’s the same attitude which has led traditionalist Muslim families to simply assume the best when their children come under the influence of ‘Islamic education and dawah organisations’, or groups ask to ‘raise money to help the oppressed of the Ummah’, or ‘free Palestine’.

In short, Judaism also has an extremism problem. Unfortunately, in my view, the majority of people who live in these communities deny both the seriousness of it and its extent, because of the ways in which it is clearly different from extremism in the Muslim communities. Of course, the majority of people in these communities — just like traditionalist Muslims — merely want to go about their lives without any trouble with the authorities. They work side by side with people of all faiths, sexualities, ethnicities and so on, just as I do. But because of the relatively small size of the community in the UK, extremism is able to exist under the radar. Also, because of the generally non-violent nature of the extremism (only in Israel does actual religious violence tend to happen) it tends not to come to the attention of the authorities except where particularly extreme restrictions or schoolchildrenare concerned:

“Growing concerns exist for the safeguarding of children in some communities. Ofsted has raised concerns about the well-being of children in segregated, supplementary and unregistered, illegal faith schools, which we witnessed ourselves during the review — where pupils are not getting opportunities to mix with children from different backgrounds or gain from a properly rounded education, where squalid and unsafe conditions exist and where staff have not been vetted to work with children.”

Not to mention:

“Schools in some areas face a constant battle in reaching out to parents to engage them and convince them not to withdraw their children from key parts of the school’s activities (whether that is swimming or visiting the theatre) that would help them gain a broader understanding of the world in which they are growing up and the people from different backgrounds that they will meet in life.”

Key parts of the school’s activities can also include controversial topics in science, literature and history. Casey also mentions that:

“several ethnic and faith minority women’s groups told us of a misogynistic culture that prevails in their communities, with women disempowered and treated as second-class citizens, and with the abusive and controlling behaviour of men often reinforced by their mothers, by religious leaders and through religious councils or courts”

As well as:

“The segregation of women and men in mosques is common but has also been found by Ofsted in independent Muslim and Orthodox Jewish faith schools and reported in wider non-religious community meetings, including meetings of political parties and in universities.”

Not mentioned by Casey, but a key battleground is the issue of ‘modesty’ and dress codes for women. It has long been the case that Jewish schools have required not only girls, but mothers to abide by increasingly stringent dress codes where hair, knees, elbows and collarbones are policed — with efforts made via questionnaires to impose this ethos beyond the boundaries of school. The part of this iceberg that has made it above the waterline are the now notorious questionnaires about the observance of ‘family purity’ laws, requiring parents effectively to disclose intimate details of their relationship to their childrens’ school. Increasingly narrow focus on gender segregation and tseniuth — ‘modesty’ — for girls has become the norm. Even more worrying has been the nature of resistance to attempts within mainstream Orthodoxy to modernise the role of women or improve their status. It is a vanishingly short step from enforcement of modesty codes and traditional gender roles to outright bullying and one which I have seen many times. As Casey says of the parallels in the Muslim communities:

“Those with the greatest sympathy for extremist and violent actions were more likely to think that girls and boys should be taught separately”

In my view, it is only a matter of time before the difference in religious studies syllabi between boys and girls in even mainstream Orthodox schools ends up being tested in court. As Casey says:

“In some schools, teachers face a constant challenge from parents and/or ‘community leaders’ who want to narrow the education and activities available to their children. This felt like hard work, and teachers were crying out for more backing from Government in their efforts to persuade parents to give their children a fully rounded education.”

Apparently this is not a concern for the Jewish Labour Movement, possibly because there are no Tories to criticise. The picture presented of the outlook for the community is cheerfully positive (with the exception of jihadi threats) with the Jewish community busily getting on with eliminating agunah.

The trouble is that agunah is not the only problem. The problem is a set of extremist attitudes. The problem is a view of the world that is in many cases incompatible with secular democracy and the glossing over of illiberal and oppressive practices and viewpoints. These are not challenges that are discussed in the cosy world of interfaith. These are challenges which, by and large, are not visible to the non-Orthodox world. It is the mission of the outreach organisations to the whole Jewish community that has made it a problem of enabling for the whole Jewish community.

This is not a popular point of view. Some may consider it scaremongering. Some may consider it untimely, considering the very real physical threats to Jewish communities that exist. Some may (no doubt with good reason) question my credentials or, less reasonably, my motivation. Some may consider it an attack on ultra-orthodoxy as a whole, but this is absolutely not my intent. It is simply to call for preventative action, to demonstrate that the community has a handle on its own problems and isn’t airbrushing them. That these problems can be identified, analysed, addressed and, working with wider society as appropriate, come to a more reasonable compromise — in much the way that it has been possible to, for instance, implement public eruvim in North London, improve equality of access to Jewish schools and inequity in divorce. But to ignore the challenge of the kiruv organisations to the mainstream and the creeping radicalisation going on further to the right is foolhardy.

In certain streets in Stamford Hill there have already been attempts to segregate men and women. This attempt to colonise public space is straight out of the Islamist playbook. Down this road lies the “no-go” area, the Jewish equivalent of the attempts to enforce so-called “Islamic behaviour” in the streets. And if you don’t think this can happen, that Jews don’t behave like that, look no further than Beit Shemesh or the murder at the Gay Pride marchin Jerusalem. These words from Casey should be a call to action, not to deny it has anything to do with us:

“Faith leadership has not to date been strong enough to counter the vocal minority who are bringing religion into disrepute and influencing the attitudes of people who increasingly regard religion as a force for bad.”

It’s time we took a good hard look at ourselves. This isn’t just about the Muslims.