‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’W.B. Yeats
Most of my readers will be aware of the article I recently wrote in the Jewish Chronicle. I don’t need to elaborate any more on what I said there, even though the Chronicle, in its wisdom, declined to run some of my more colourful turns of phrase. Since I wrote my article, it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been contacted by more people than ever before. By far and away the most frequent message I have received, whether it’s in person, on the phone, by email, or by text has been: ‘at last someone is speaking up for the majority’. What I want to explore here is why the majority won’t speak up for itself?
What has brought this problem to the surface is the realisation of how ludicrously easy it is for entirely unrepresentative figures to appoint themselves as community spokesmen. Our community is so lacking in genuine leadership, so devoid of effective representation, that if you want to be the no. 1 community activist you can just do it. No relevant background or experience required. Turn up at some meetings, shout at some Rabbonim, fire off a few dozen emails and hey presto, just like that, you’re the voice of Stamford Hill. However, the inability of the silent Charedi majority to speak out and stand up to the domineering minority has wide-ranging consequences which affect our lives on a daily basis.
To take only the most obvious examples, in order to get their children accepted to schools, many parents put up with governors and committee members exercising arbitrary power and imposing humiliating rituals. Families who already have a TAG filter on their devices are bullied into taking on ‘mehadrin’ alternatives that violate their privacy by recording their phone usage and revealing the data to a nosey va’ad. Harmless, even wholesome, social events are randomly condemned or banned on pain of children being expelled from school. While anti-Zionist fanatics can get away with publicly burning a Magen David on Lag B’Omer, no organisation in town would dare to do something as innocent as invite the Israeli ambassador to a fundraising reception.
The vast majority of community members not only oppose these practices, but find them disgusting, even disturbing. Yet week after week, year after year, they do nothing and nothing changes.
I believe that this timidity on the part of rank and file Charedim is the result of a fundamental ambiguity in the Charedi identity. Whenever the question of what it means to be Charedi is raised, we immediately start thinking in terms of ideology, about what we do and don’t believe. In reality, though, the vast majority of us are Charedi because we were born into it, because our friends and family are there, because it’s where we feel comfortable, where we feel at home. Ideology plays a marginal role in our lives, less so, probably, than it does in the life of a typical 21st century Briton.
The result of living in a community that is officially an ideological movement, but in reality a shared way of life is that ordinary Charedim have internalised a message that anything to do with hashkafa is not their domain, but is something for community leaders who, presumably, have everything figured out. Because they can’t provide a detailed account of their ideology and how everything in it fits together, they feel that they have no right to express themselves about any single issue of principle regardless of how strongly they feel about it.
At the same time, there are some people within the Charedi community who do have a clear, worked-out ideology and feel no compunction about speaking out. They can therefore dominate the Charedi conversation simply by showing up. Whether it’s your Shul committee or the local school’s governing body, it’s likely that ideologues will be in the majority and at the very least setting the tone of the conversation. They aren’t successful in making the majority of Charedim adhere to their world view, indeed they don’t even really try. They are able, however, to enforce an embargo on others expressing alternative points of view.
At this point some readers might be thinking: isn’t that what being Charedi is all about, having emunas chachamim and submitting to Da’as Torah? That would be an interesting argument if it had any relationship to reality. In the world we live in, the people who speak on behalf of Charedim and drown out the voice of the majority are not the Rabbinical leaders, they are simply those with the confidence and motivation to speak up and speak out.
This reality has recently been confirmed in the most spectacular way. We have all seen the letter condemning in the most strident terms Jews who opposed Jeremy Corbyn signed by the Rav of the kehilla. We have also seen the retraction issued by the UOHC, asserting that the Rav is too ill to know what he signed and was taken advantage of by unnamed unscrupulous actors. Bear in mind that this is not an anonymous theory on IfYouTickleUs, but the official story of the UOHC. Pause for a moment to think about what that means. The reality is that policy in our community it set by people who are willing to stand up and grab hold of the microphone. If you don’t raise your voice, there are plenty of others who will, and many of them, I’m sorry to say, won’t let honesty or decency get in the way of pursuing their agenda.
What stops Charedim from speaking up and speaking out is two things. First is the feeling that unless they have a coherent, developed ideology then they have no right to have any opinion at all. Second is a fear of unspecified consequences if they dare to oppose those in charge. Both of these are completely wrong: you don’t need to have the answers to everything to know the difference between right and wrong and the reason why the consequences of speaking up are always left vague and unspecified is because they don’t actually exist.
The fact is that the small minority of bullies are paper tigers. Their power rests entirely on the learned helplessness of ordinary Charedim who disagree with them. All you need to do is calmly challenge these people – in Yiddish, in English, in Hebrew, it doesn’t matter – in order to reveal that they are in fact a minority and have no right to impose their ideology on those that don’t share it. When the ideologues are forced to defend their actions in a more detailed way than simply mouthing slogans of Da’as Torah and Mesorah, the inevitable result is that they have to become accountable, to take into account the needs, wishes, and values of the community, or be pushed aside.
It’s important to specify what effective speaking out doesn’t look like. It’s not showing up and angrily ranting, it’s not threatening to go to the media, and it certainly isn’t actually going to the media. You might win on an individual issue, but only at the cost of making yourself a pariah and strengthening the ideologues. It also has nothing to do with the booming industry of anonymous Twitter handles, emails, letters, pakeshvils and WhatsApp messages that circulate throughout the community. Anonymity gives you the illusion of feeling in control, it allows you to indulge in hyperbole and abuse, but it does nothing but bolster the feeling of power that the bullies enjoy. Only by voicing your opinion publicly can you show that the emperor has no clothes.
When all is said and done, changing our community requires nothing more than finding our self-respect: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.