When mainstream leaders stand up against extremism, the community is stronger (Part 2)

In my previous article, I showed what a huge and beneficial difference it makes for the mainstream political leadership of the Jewish community to draw a clear line between the healthy diversity of legitimate political debate and the fear, hatred and paranoia employed by far right extremists.

Some views and behaviours are easier to define as clearly ‘outside the camp’. The mainstream political leadership of the community tends to take a pragmatic view towards politics, providing a way for organisations with a significant membership to affiliate to the Board of Deputies and thus a fair representation of the broad variety of communal views. The grandees, sponsors and technical experts of the major communal organisations that make up the Jewish Leadership Council have also carved out a role for themselves as a sort of “House of Lords”.

There is little actual unity of views except in regard to the political far-right / far-left and the protection of legal derogations for shehitah (kosher slaughter) milah (circumcision), without which normative Jewish life in the UK would become impossible. In particular, there is no cross-communal consensus on whether the mainstream leadership is too supportive, too neutral, or not supportive enough of the Israeli government of the day, with every group accusing “the establishment” of bias against its own political inclination.

The mainstream communal leadership is thus a place for messy compromises, pragmatism and consensus-building. All the mainstream religious organisations, Liberal, Reform, Masorti, United, Federation and Sephardi are included, despite their deep differences in worldview and interpretation of religious law. Some organisations, like the left-wing Zionist organisation Yachad, affiliate despite objections to their presence, because they wish to sustain a mainstream constituency.  Others, like the astroturfing organisations of the far left, exclude themselves in order not to have to tarnish their ideological purity and devotion to their leaders.

The ultra-orthodox communities refuse to join in order to avoid having to share a platform with the ‘progressive’ movements. Like the far left, they have chosen to build their own parallel lobbying apparatus in order to keep the control they need and maintain their distance from the rest of the community. This is a source of great concern. The haredi leadership are afraid. They rely on support, cover and funding from the mainstream community, but they are still managing to avoid being called to account for the scandals and abuses over which they preside.

It has long been known, for instance, that a large number of haredi boys are missing from the school system. Everyone in their communities knows where they are. The authorities are aware of the pretence by haredi leaders that the boys are being “homeschooled”, confident that the relevant regulations and oversight are woefully inadequate. (For a more detailed analysis, read my colleague Eve Sacks’ piece here.) Likewise, there are increasing revelations that the economic gap caused by the lack of scalability in the haredi economic model is being filled by tax evasion and benefit fraud, endorsed by the rabbis.

Mainstream lay and religious leaders have been notably reluctant to confront the reality of forced marriage and ignorance of the crucial issue of consent in the ultra-orthodox world, anxious to avoid appearing judgmental or confrontational. The result has been to provide cover for abusers and enforce widespread ignorance, as my colleague Yehudis Fletcher has eloquently written. But it is notably different when a clear lead is given, for example by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in promoting the wellbeing of LGBT pupils in mainstream Jewish schools, or by the new head of the Federation Beth Din, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, who testified against a child abuser.

But these cases are the exception rather than the rule. It is still the case, unfortunately, that many ultra-orthodox decisors consider involving the secular authorities to be “mesirah”, the capital crime of informing against a fellow Jew. When Rabbi Ephraim Padwa of the haredi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, was caught on camera in 2013 by Channel 4’s “Dispatches”, advising a victim of abuse not to go to police, there was uproar. Under the Romans, the Inquisition, or the Tsars, this might be an understandable attitude, but not in a modern liberal democracy, one that is regarded even in the ultra-orthodox world as a malchus shel chesed, a society that is accepting and supportive of Jewish life. The mainstream United Synagogue, is clear that mesirah is not in question in cases of sexual and domestic abuse. Yet despite its praiseworthy halakhic stance, it has not rushed to give a clear, public steer on this subject, or that of financial crime and other morally questionable practices in the ultra-orthodox communities in the same way as it has on homophobic bullying.

It makes a difference what mainstream faith and community leaders say. There are people in fundamentalist communities that believe that their pain is unheard and that no help will come to them from outside. It is time that they learned otherwise. A shift in the direction of transparency and accountability is under way. This cannot be anything but good news for the Jewish community as a whole, let alone those who even now are suffering from abuse, enforced ignorance and the denial of rights that the rest of us take for granted. 

Daniel Jonas is chair of Nahamu, which opposes the harms of extremist views and behaviours within the Jewish community.