Earlier this month, a shocking piece of research was published by OFSTED on the prevalence of sexual abuse and harassment in British schools and colleges. To quote the report “nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. Children and young people told us that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace’”. Self-evidently, this report is a wake up call to parents across the country who may have imagined that phenomena such as ‘upskirting’ and revenge porn were rare occurrences unlikely to affect their own child.
One important reason for the OFSTED report was the website Everyone’s Invited, on which young people across the country record their experience with rape or sexual assault. A key innovation of the website was to have the anonymous contributors state which educational institution they were attending at the time. These harrowing accounts come from all corners of the country, including a number of mainstream Jewish secondary schools. This has now been confirmed in the most shocking way by the publication of OFSTED’s report on JFS where it refers to ‘unchallenged, inappropriate … sexual harassment”.
Uncomfortable as it is to shine a spotlight on the problems in Jewish education, it cannot pass unremarked that JFS and other similar schools have for many years been held up as an example in order to condemn Charedi schools where pupils are not, to quote the JFS report, ‘adequately prepared for life in modern Britain.’ Obsessive critics of the Charedi community have strained the bounds of credulity by insisting that victims of endemic sexual bullying are nevertheless, ‘lucky’ compared to those at Charedi schools, where pictures of Elizabeth I’s have stickers on the arms, there are no school trips to the Tate Modern and students complete their Science GCSEs without ever learning what a zygote is.
However, there is more at stake here than merely the ludicrous lengths to which people who don’t like Charedi Judaism will go to insist that their model of Jewish education is always better. Let me make here a very simple and obvious observation: more than 90% of the cases talked about in the OFSTED report or recorded on Everyone’s Invited would be impossible in the absence of mixed-sex education and social media. To put it another way, if liberal British society – and that includes mainstream UK Jewry – was to make all schools single sex and block minors from all social media, tens of thousands of victims of sexual assault would not have been victimised. This is not to suggest that all sexual assault would be prevented by this measure, just that the total amount would be dramatically reduced.
So why not do it? The answer is obvious, because behind the cant of ‘if it only saves one’, it is not reasonable to ask a society to overturn its basic principles to protect a proportionately small number of people harmed by them. Segregating the genders among youngsters in 21st century Britain would represent not just a revolution in how society is practically organised, but is incompatible with basic moral assumptions that permeate every aspect of mainstream British and British-Jewish life. So, instead, schools are busy implementing mitigation measures that are compatible with liberal culture, which they know will not eradicate the problem, but will, they hope, cut the amount of suffering somewhat.
And that’s fine. What is not fine, however, is that when it comes to Charedim, outside commentators, particularly those in the mainstream Jewish Press, make precisely the opposite assumption: if there is a problem in the Charedi community, every measure to combat this must be on the table, regardless of how incompatible it is with the Charedi social system, until the problem is eradicated. Mitigation measures that are compatible with Charedi morals and values are not acceptable because they will still leave some victims.
The issue which most clearly illustrates this dynamic is the furore over the alleged problem of ‘forced marriage’ within the Charedi community which has appeared prominently in the Jewish press since the publication of a report by Nahamu. Some people in the Charedi community have unhappy marriages, for a wide variety of reasons; in some cases, this ends in divorce. This happens in the wider world too, in greater numbers, for what it’s worth. The preposterous and offensive case made by Eve Sacks et al. however is that whenever a Charedi marriage falls apart, it can retroactively be identified as a ‘forced marriage’.
In none of the identified cases, is it even claimed that these ‘forced marriages’ took place as a result of violence or the threat of it, which for all I know may occasionally happen, as it does in wider society too. Rather, they are ‘forced’ because family expectations, peer pressure and the place of marriage in the community mean that men and women who imagine themselves to be making their own decisions are too limited in their horizons to make a free choice. Luckily, Nahamu is on hand to help Charedim going through family turmoil understand that actually they are the victims of forced marriage as they are guided to the sunlit uplands of British society, where every marriage is happy as a result of sex education in Year 9.
The solutions proposed by advocates of the retroactive forced marriage hypothesis amount to a reconstruction of the whole Charedi approach to child-rearing. In between Chumash and mathematics, Charedi girls must be given lessons about sexual attraction and told that, if that’s what they want, they could just dump the whole shidduch thing and go on Tinder instead. Of course, this means that the Charedi match-making system would become completely untenable, but so what? If the system doesn’t always work, get a new system.
It is tempting to accuse our critics here of having a double standard, but that misses the point. The reason why their demands of Charedi society are the precise inverse of their demands on liberal society is their fundamental assumption that liberal Britain circa 2021 is the default mode of human existence. Because liberalism is the norm, the legitimacy of liberal society is not placed in doubt by the existence of harms, no matter how prevalent they are. Because Charedi society deviates from this norm, its existence can only be justified by the elimination of all harm. Moreover, since Charedi society deviates so far from the natural state of humanity, those who live within it are not able to make free choices unless given balance from outside.
The first point to make here is that we shouldn’t get caught in the trap of denying that any problems exist. Charedim do not need to clear the bar of perfection to justify their alternative social model. The second is to insist that just as liberal society has an ongoing obligation to ameliorate its problems through liberal methods, so Charedi society has an ongoing obligation to ameliorate its problems through Charedi methods. The mere fact that reforms advocated by outside parties are incompatible with our model for communal life does not excuse us of the burden of finding our own solutions.
The attempt of some to retrospectively classify unhappy marriages as ‘forced’ is beneath contempt, but certainly there are elements of the marriage process that can be refined. Measures to standardise chosson/kallah classes across the community, and guidance to help parents discuss these issues with their children in the run up to and after marriage are certainly desirable. Any measure we may take, however, has to pass the test of reinforcing, not undermining, the overall approach.
The Charedi approach to love and marriage is based on a belief that, in the typical case, parents will do a better job of finding a life partner for their son or daughter than they would be able to do themselves. By the same token parents know that young men and women have the option to say no and demand they go back to the shadchan for someone more suitable. We should not be ashamed of this belief, not try to hide or obscure it. We see the truth of it every day.
In the face of outside attacks that start by observing that not everyone gets a good deal in life, and finish by demanding we dismantle our community until everyone is happy, we should stand firm and confident. Our way of life is valid and legitimate and we can trust that, in an ever changing world, Charedi problems have Charedi solutions.