For as long as there have been bekeshes in Stamford Hill, a feature of our communal life has been the freelance extremist who, over many decades, has refined and perfected a mode of religious activism known colloquially as ‘shouting incoherently at people like a nutter’. This advocacy comes in slightly different flavours: some are happy to go out on a rainy day and rant at the corner of Fairholt Road about the evils of CDs; others are more sophisticated and save up their shouting for meetings of the UOHC Rabbinate where it has more of an impact. Their basic modus operandi, however, is remarkably consistent and needs little explanation.
I don’t want to make light here of the negative effect that this kind of disorganised activism has on Stamford Hill life. In my own field of education, I know only too well how many common-sense reforms that could transform the educational outcomes of children are left on the shelf because people with the responsibility for making decisions don’t want the hassle of becoming the target of a local meshugene. In addition, every year there are a certain number of disgusting incidents, the most recent of which was when a pack of feral human beings brought a woman to tears by screaming at her for pushing a pram in the new Union approved eiruv in Tottenham.
However, at the same time, there have always been forces that maintain a social equilibrium and make this kind of activism a marginal phenomenon with little overt effect, often more humorous than scary. The most important factor keeping things under control is that those who choose to engage in this sort of behaviour accept upon themselves the status of social lepers, limiting its appeal to a motley crew of eccentrics, unmarriageables and a certain well-known family cult who like to do anti-Zionist interviews with Russia Today and Vice magazine. I think that far more can be done to ostracise these people, most notably by disciplining the handful of shuls that allow them to daven and use the mikveh without aggro. However, while their numbers are limited to people who either don’t mind or enjoy pariah status, the problem has always been a manageable one.
Unfortunately, however, over the last couple of years, this equilibrium has been disrupted by the kanuim’s new deployment of a revolutionary social technology: the power of anonymity. As long as you never use your own name or show your face, you can launch targeted harassment campaigns to your heart’s content and not have to worry about kids sniggering at you when you try to buy your groceries.
I am, of course, talking about the za’akas haShabbos hotline and robocalls, originally set up to oppose the construction of the new eruv, but which has branched out into a wide range of vendettas, including one particularly nasty campaign against a popular local publication. Even yours truly has been the target on a couple of occasions, as the leader of “the new haskalah movement in London”. Perhaps some of my woker critics on Twitter will go easier on me now that one of these robocalls have publicly identified me as a member of the “ultra linke elementen” (ultra Left element).
While I can shrug these kinds of aimless libels off, however, there are many people who are really suffering because of the emotional, social, and financial effects of being on the receiving end of a campaign of harassment and abuse. The effect of these campaigns is qualitatively distinct from pashkevillen which are routinely ignored except to tear them down, and do not penetrate into the privacy of the home. The organisers of these campaigns employ some fairly basic psychological techniques, exploiting the perennial human urge for gossip, and a certain talent for conjuring up catchy nicknames. Their real power, however, comes from nothing more complicated than the ability to dispense with all scruples of taste, decency or ethics that comes with no-one knowing who you are.
So what can be done about Stamford Hill’s retro remake of the internet troll? The most obvious solutions require the kind of leadership the community lacks, exercised by leaders whose confidence in their own authority can survive a confrontation with the extremists. While this is probably too much to ask, it would not be inconceivable for the Union to pen an explicit condemnation of the hotline, signed by named Rabbonim instead of a secretary. Another avenue is the same one that any society must employ when dealing with cases where individual prosecutions are impossible: targeting networks. While we don’t know precisely who is behind these campaigns, we have a pretty good idea of which people might know. It’s high time that the degree of indulgence given to people who flirt with local terrorist cells be rescinded until they divulge what they know or dissociate themselves. Finally, efforts remain underway to trace the calls back further than the Israeli dummy numbers used to cloak them, though, to date, they continue to turn up nothing.
Whatever happens, however, this new development in local extremism demonstrates that problems left to fester are ticking time bombs. Our community easily, often too easily, does a good job of separating itself from people who break certain taboos. What we have never been able to do is successfully exclude the Antifa mit peyos who tick all the Charedi boxes. We have put up with it until now because the problem has always been manageable and limited. All it took, however, was someone to invest a few hundred pounds in the latest cold-calling technology and now families are bombarded five times a day with hate rants.
We’ll probably find a patch for this particular development, but what about the next time Jihadi Joel has a brainwave? It’s time to play offence not defence. While they need us, we don’t need them and never have. Why not start thinking creatively about how to dispense with them?