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.

8 thoughts on “Each To Their Own

  1. Thanks for the great article, as usual.

    There was just one word I’m not sure is accurate – “parents know that young men and women always have the option to say no and demand they go back to the shadchan for someone more suitable”. I don’t think they ALWAYS have that option. Unfortunately, in some families, the pressure is such that it is not a viable option for the child to say no.

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    1. It is definitely true that some children in Charedi families aren’t truly given a choice and are pressured into what may qualify as ‘forced marriage’, and it does provide parents with an opportunity for abuse that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
      However, a distinction needs to be drawn between a practice that’s part of an institution, and an abuse made possible by it. True, the Charedi way of ‘marrying off’ children does give more power to parents, and power comes with the ability to abuse it, but pressuring a child into a marriage is forbidden in Halachah, and is not promoted in any Charedi circles. Considering the vulnerability of a woman in today’s world, I think the Haredi kid is comparatively quite well off. The risks of abuse are certainly not higher, only different. 
      Every system has loopholes, and the responsibility is ours to prevent such things from happening. But when comparing our way of marrying with it’s secular alternative, we should compare our ideal situation versus their ideal, and our opportunities for abuse versus theirs. When this is how we look at it, the shidduch system stands more of a chance.

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  2. Truly great article.

    A parallel observation of my own is that Harvey Weinstein could not have molested or raped a single woman if they had observed hilchos yichud. Most cases involved young women meeting Harvey alone in his room.

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  3. I happen to go quite a lot on public transport. Most types of people are wearing face masks but many of a certain type, men and women dont seem to think it is necessary. People near me ask me why dont they wear one. And some just point to them and to their mask. It makes no difference to them. They dont seem to notice or care. I consider this a grave chillull hashem. Yes others also dont wear them. But you are recognised as being Jewish they arent. I have not yet seen you or anyone else mention this. I would like someone to put a notice in every shul saying that if you dont wear one you are causing a chillull hashem signed by every rov in London. They put up notices for less important things and sometimes the opposite and have no trouble in finding signatures. Rabbonim today are only too pleased to see their name on them, that gives them credence and they imagine respect. Since you are a ‘klal’ person maybe you can do something about it.

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    1. Dear Chananya,

      Rabbi Eli is not the person who has ever gone around to ask rabbonim to do something he is voicing his opinion publicly and putting him self out.

      I see this as your mission to get a signature from local rabonim on this important issue perhaps we can have some local charities provide masks for the poorest.

      Looking forward to see the paper.
      Yakov

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  4. Project Nahamu would have jumped upon this OFSTED report with both boots it it matched their agenda, and it is understandable that you do so too.

    But let’s not forget where Nahamu began. We need to talk about mesirah, Channel 4, and the case of the sadistic abuser with yichus who left a trail of victims of all sexes on all sides of the European continent from his mid teens onward. A man whose activities the Lakewood, Gibraltarian, UOHC and MBD Rabbinate knew all about.

    Under that enabling hashgacha, midda knegged midda, Project Nahamu was formed.

    If you take Charedi to mean UOHC, the mikva doors, the cheder doors, are still wide open to these characters from nightmares. It was left to LBD dayanim to deal with another highly placed source of danger to women within the UOHC, who still is in a position to do considerable harm. And it is hard not to see how the Rabbinic nepotism of the UOHC devolves into wilful neglect of future victims.

    If every problem is a Halachic question b’iyun, an opportunity for tugging at beards, for quoting obscure tomes written by a brilliant student who never had to pasken Halacha lm’aseh – then children and women will never be safe. There is no room for peshorah on sexual abuse.

    This isn’t about the culture wars. This is about your son, your daughter, your wife being safe.

    So while I agree with the piece in isolation – that analogies between South Asian forced marriage and Charedi shidduchim are opportunistically sensationalised by an institution hungry for budget and profile – I cannot agree with its agenda.

    The wider purpose is propping up the congregation of abusers, the Adas Merei’im, the UOHC, with a little tinkering around policies, is utterly wrongheaded.

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  5. Very good article!

    The problem is that organizations like Nahamu are heavily – and uncritically – promoted by media and politicians, even though Nahamu is a very small, non-Charedi group.

    See, for example, this latest attack against the Charedi community:

    https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2021/06/24/forced-marriage-uk-conversion-therapy-ban-charedi-ultra-orthodox-judaism-nahamu

    Charedim in the UK should start defending themselves against these attacks as soon as possible – otherwise, there is a danger that anti-Charedi, anti-Orthodox, anti-Jewish bigotry will become mainstream.

    Liked by 1 person

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