I‘m afraid I have some disturbing news. Living amongst us, indeed in the heart of our capital city, is a group of people who can only be described as barbaric fiends. In this community there is ‘not a single man who is in any way psychologically normal’ and they are all, for good measure, ‘profoundly unattractive’. The women, for their part, are ‘profoundly ugly’, but perhaps it’s not their fault because in this hellish world “women are told that their bodies are very dirty and very shameful and that their sexuality is inherently evil and that they have to work their whole life just to compensate, themselves and the people around them, for the evil they represent”. This community exercises a “suffocating control … over the minds of its members, particularly its female members”, but, lest you feel too much sympathy for them “they are all actively abusive or in collusion with abuse.”. It should be no surprise, then, that for those that manage to escape “it’s like leaving a burning building. You grab what you can and run. And if you value your safety, you never go back in, not for anything.”
So who are these ghouls, this community of devils? Well, I’m afraid to say it’s me and, if you’re part of the Charedi community, it’s you too.
All of the quotations above are descriptions of the Charedi community, freely available on the internet. But these are not the descriptions of a fringe Nazi website banned by social media, but by Miriam Fox in the Jewish News, the UK’s largest Jewish newspaper, Professor Barbara Regenspan in the Forward, America’s most influential Jewish publication, and Deborah Feldman on DW News, a branch of the German state broadcaster.
I believe that we are witnessing a complete sea change in the public discourse about Charedim over a very short space of time. Only a few years ago, prime ministers and cabinet members were eager to appear at Charedi events, happily addressing an audience gender-segregated with an eight-foot high mechitzah. Documentaries portrayed us as lovable eccentrics with funny customs and hearts of gold. The speed with which a narrative of our community as a black and white oppressive cult has become dominant is stunning.
This trend has been crystallized by the Netflix drama, Unorthodox, which explicitly sells itself as providing a realistic portrayal of the inner workings of the Chassidic community and was released just as most of the western world found itself housebound as a result of Coronavirus. It is no exaggeration to say that the depiction contained in this series is horrific, especially when it comes to the private lives of married couples, something dwelled upon to the point of nausea, in more ways than one. Hundreds of thousands of people now base their view of our community primarily, if not exclusively, on a sensationalised TV adaptation of a fictional pseudo-autobiography written by a media-savvy grifter for whom no claim about the dysfunctional lives of Chassidim is too outlandish.
However, Unorthodox is just the most obvious example of a wider phenomenon in which public debate about Charedim has become almost entirely dominated by people who’ve left the Charedi community and activists who see their role as saviours of the oppressed members of the Charedi community. Of course, everyone has the right to their opinion, and to share their experience, assuming they stick to the facts; it’s entirely legitimate for secularists and OTDs to add their voice to the conversation. What’s not legitimate, however, is for this tiny minority, whose experiences and attitudes are totally divorced from the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Charedim, to dominate the conversation and for our voice not to be heard.
To illustrate just how toxic the current dynamic is, I recommend you read the article by Miriam Fox in its entirety. Bear in mind that this article was eagerly retweeted by prominent Jewish journalists and the leadership of an ‘anti-extremism’ think tank. What starts off as a rambling review of Unorthodox descends into a staggeringly bizarre rant in which all considerations of taste, caution or restraint are thrown to the winds. I draw your attention, in particular, however, to this passage:
‘We are told that they are imperfect, but human, like the rest of humanity. We are told to look at the ills in the rest of society. But this is just mere apologetics, and it’s wrong.’
This is apparently a reference to an article written by another Stamford Hill OTD, Izzy Posen. Posen doesn’t like Charedi Judaism, its beliefs, its culture, its way of life, anything really, but he did want to simply point out that Charedim are human, with the same range of emotions and needs as anyone else. Fox’s argument is that, no, actually, Charedim are not human.
Just think about that for a moment. The Jewish News is a fastidiously politically correct publication. It would not dream of saying anything that could be construed as remotely offensive to any minority community, be it religious, ethnic or anything else. But it is quite happy to be the forum for a debate about the humanity or otherwise of Charedi Jews, a debate in which the subjects are not invited to speak!
When the two sides of the poles of the debate are whether Charedim are demonic villains or merely ordinary people who are wrong about absolutely everything, outsiders will assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If you think this doesn’t matter, I need only refer you to the staggering campaign of public humiliation that the head of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, has conducted against Yesodei Hatorah Girls School for more than two years. This campaign has been so bewildering for staff and parents who know the reality of a decent school that achieves fantastic GCSE results that it is hard to believe it is real. But the facts are what they are. Amanda Spielman really and truly believes that Yesodey Hatorah removed Elizabeth I from the curriculum because they don’t want the girls to have ‘female role models’ and she believes it with enough confidence to repeat it on LBC and Sky News.
This is what happens when the public conversation about Charedim is dominated by people who openly state that all, or at the very least most, Charedi men are rapists because of their system of arranged marriages. And if one of the nation’s top Civil Servants has fallen for this sort of narrative, you can bet that others have too and one of them will be the planning officer who decides whether a shul has planning permission, a coroner who decides how long to delay a burial, a potential donor who decides on a donation for a charity, or a family-court judge tasked with deciding who has custody rights over children.
I’m neither a novi nor a fortune teller and I can’t tell whether this trend will intensify or fizzle out. The former, however, is more likely. The fact is we live in a world where respectable members of the middle classes think the values held by their own parents a mere few decades ago are too reprehensible to be voiced publicly. There’s no getting around the fact that, in such an environment, a community dedicated to the values of former centuries is going to stick out like a sore thumb. What is more, the primal need to condemn and ostracise, is just as strong as it ever has been. As the list of people it is forbidden to say anything remotely critical about grows ever longer, the human eye looks around for someone to despise and there, wearing conveniently funny hats that attract attention, are Charedim with a fully-functioning patriarchy right out in the open.
Ultimately, then, I believe that we will have to get used to weathering a lot of unwanted attention. However, that does not mean that there is nothing we can do and many of the things that we can do happen to be running themes of this blog.
The first is the need to improve standards of secular education for boys. Whatever else it might be, the fact that so many Charedim leave school unable to compose a simple written argument leaves us defenceless in the face of attacks. How much harder would it be for our defamers to get away with it if every outlandish allegation was swiftly met by a well thought out rebuttal. In order to do this, it’s not enough to have a few professional community spokesmen doing PR, we need a broad base of people who have the skills to state our case. More than that, we need people who are precisely not community spokesmen, but rather ordinary people standing up for themselves.
The second is the need to promote female voices. The most powerful line of attack against our community is that women are oppressed, a narrative which feeds both into the feminist zeitgeist of the age and the eternal desire for salacious gossip. Having a man explain that Charedi life is not a dystopia populated by hopeless and helpless women is just not effective. The fact is, however, that, while we preserve traditional gender roles in the home and at shul, almost every one of the well-run institutions that make our community tick over are already run by women who are feisty and articulate. We need their voices to be part of the public conversation.
Nearly 100 years ago, the writer and pedagogue, Heschl Klepfisch called on orthodox women to ‘Take up your pen’ in the face of waves of anti-orthodox polemic that focussed on the alleged oppression of women. This call was met by the Bais Yaakov Journal and writers like Miria Ulinover and Rosa Jacobson. One of the themes I intend to explore further in this blog is the thriving intellectual culture of orthodox Judaism in pre-war Europe and how we can revive it. First on the list should be creating a forum for female voices in the community to be heard.
The third and final point is that we need to stop pointlessly alienating potential allies, or, to put it more precisely, we need to stand up to a small minority of immature knuckleheads responsible for it. There are legitimate questions about how the organisations like the Board of Deputies or the Office of the Chief Rabbi, speak in the name of orthodox Jews, while not representing the views of the emerging Charedi majority. Addressing that imbalance, however, is not the same thing as purposely alienating and antagonising people like a gaggle of Millwall fans. Next time bored fanatics decide to amuse themselves by having the Chief Rabbi disinvited from a siyum, it’s time, as a community, to say that their recreation does not trump our community’s need to build alliances with others.
This is not about stifling legitimate debate about or within the community. I really do believe that criticism is good for everyone, individuals and communities alike. However, we can’t stand by and accept a situation where simply hurling any and every form of abuse at Charedim becomes the last acceptable form of bigotry.