The Liberty Belz: Driving ban reminds us of our own extremists

I really don’t get how it can be “immodest” for women to drive – at least unless it’s a seriously flashy car.

About once a year, a Jewish communal controversy makes it into the British national press, and we rarely come out of the ordeal looking like a sensible group of people. The broiges over Rabbi Mirvis attending Limmud was the previous one. And last week’s brouhaha – in which a rabbinic authority for the Belz sect of London Chassidim issued a ban on women driving – was no exception.

A particularly sore point for some was the fact that the story, later picked up by major newspapers and senior politicians, was originally broken by the Jewish Chronicle. “Why draw extra unfavourable attention to ourselves?” agonised one commentator.

Actually, though, it does us good, once in a while, to see the Jewish community as the outside world perceives us. Not as the more paranoid elements of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism like to imagine the outside world perceives us, but to have an insight into what the (wo)man driving the Clapham omnibus actually thinks.

And why is this good for our souls? It serves as a timely reminder that the Jewish people is not immune to the extremists and swivel-eyed looms that beleaguer every other community.

It’s very easy to look down our noses at the entire Church of England because one of its clerics is an obnoxious anti-Semite, or to tweet memes lambasting “the ‘Palestinians'” for how they treat their women. But we need to remember that our own house is not yet in order, and in the words of Rabbi Bunam: if you seek peace in your world, first seek peace in your town.

Part of our consternation about the public furore over Chassidic women drivers is the fear of misrepresentation. Readers of the news coverage might well imagine, through the innocent ignorance of the Other that pervades our society, that ‘the Jews’ don’t let women drive.

“We’re not all like that!”, we’ve rushed to clarify. “They’re just cranks, they’re not the mainstream.” And quite right too.

Though in so clarifying, we must recognise the validity of this exculpation when used by other faith groups as well. The number of Jewish Islamophobes quite happy to describe ISIS as the Muslim mainstream, and misogyny, Jew-hatred and support for terrorism as standard Islamic beliefs, is terrifyingly high.

But now we know from our own experience that it is possible for the many to practise a nice, civilised, peaceful religion, that is wrongfully twisted by the few. Our own protestations are true. Perhaps some of us should give mainstream Muslims more credit when they distance themselves from their extremists, now that we know we have to distance ourselves from ours. The nature of the extremism is vastly different but the perversion from the religious norm is still present.

It would be perverse of me to thank the Belz for providing the rest of us with this cathartic moment of realisation. So I say conclude only this: in amongst our perfectly reasonable pain at our religion being mocked in the media thanks to the wrongful extremism of a small sect, let us learn from the experience and remember that other communities suffer the same misrepresentations. None of our religions are yet perfect, and that is, perhaps, one major factor that unifies us.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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