Toxic ‘them versus us’ narrative makes the chasm grow wider

Screenshot from Jewish News' video footage of police interrupting a Charedi simcha
Screenshot from Jewish News' video footage of police interrupting a Charedi simcha

When it was reported that police had broken up a wedding in Yesoday Hatorah school in Stamford Hilll, I was just surprised it had taken them so long. It’s been known for months that despite Covid lockdown rules that Charedi weddings have continued.

Initially, the narrative was that the community leaders and members didn’t understand the Covid rules as many did not speak English. Recently the UK Government published lockdown guidance in Yiddish with the support of the Board of Deputies, perhaps clinging to the notion that it was just a lack of understanding of the rules that was leading to the lack of compliance.

It may well be a lack of understanding that is the problem. But publishing a one-page Covid guidelines in Yiddish will not be enough.

The education needed to address the lack of understanding would take a shift of direction and at least a generation to achieve.

In parts of the Charedi community the lifestyle is extremely social. It comprises thrice daily communal prayers and a weekly menu of weddings, barmitzvahs, bris milah, shalom zachor, kiddishes, aufrufs, engagement parties, and sheva brachos.

After all, other forms of entertainment have been banned, or are not accessible, such as TV, internet, films, even secular books, magazines and newspapers.

Add in the pressure of large families in small homes, and it quickly becomes apparent that staying at home would cause massive hardship. And yet, flouting the rules would cause deaths.

Chassidic communities all over the world have chosen death over hardship, with reports from Israel that the mortality rates over 65s in Charedi communities are three times the death rates in over 65s other communities.

Further, as the pandemic has progressed, police forces have had to deal with the lack of compliance, there has been violence against the police in both Israel and Canada.

Tighter Police enforcement in the UK could even have had the same outcome. The narrative in Israel is now around “them versus us” with the Zionist state (them) wanting to stop the Charedi (us) way of life, leading to parallels with the story of Chanukah and the Greeks. This same narrative is being played out in Charedi communities in other countries.

The current demographic trends mean that the Charedi community is becoming a bigger proportion of Anglo Jewry, and the longer the narrative of “them versus us” ensues the more embedded the problem becomes.

It is this narrative that allows the community to self govern; in normal times this may lead to a communal understanding that certain tax laws don’t apply; in the current climate there is a public health risk.

In the past week we have also seen the Charedi community threatening to boycott the Jewish press (both the Jewish News and the Jewish Chronicle) due to claims of Anti-Semitism and hate for the Charedi community for publishing details of lockdown breaches.

However, some of the threats bizarrely included previous coverage of the Government’s requirement to cover sex and relationship education in Charedi schools. This thinking reflects a troubling lack of perspective about their own unacceptable behaviour as well as the role of the free press.

So what needs to change?

The place to address the problem is in the Charedi schools; as the current lack of compliance stems from many layers of lack of understanding. An understanding that a continuation to flout the rules will be seized on by antiSemites, and affects the whole Jewish community. An understanding of the people around us, that they too struggle with the lockdown and its causing hardship for all. An understanding of science, to be able to appreciate the role the science plays in the current crisis.

A solid understanding of English be able to access mainstream media. As well as improving the school’s curriculum, citizenship education is needed, to give a sense that being British gives a sense of responsibility.

Steps are also needed to give Charedi children the tools to grow up as adults who can confidently navigate the outside world, including an understanding of the role of a free press, and a working definition of antisemitism. It seems somewhat bizarre that I need to say this but also needed is a modern understanding of Jewish concepts such as Ohr L’Goyim (light unto the Nations) and Chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). Isolation has become dangerous.

It may be time to have another look at previous DFE proposals to require all children in faith schools to have ongoing meaningful contact with children from other communities.

As part of Nahamu I have been lobbying about the systemic harms in the Charedi community. The lack of education, forced marriage, covering up abuse, what we call coerced criminality but is just tax evasion and benefit fraud, as well as the lack of autonomy people have over their lives.

But as we have seen in this pandemic, the lack of respect for the law on financial matters extends to other areas, whenever there is a threat to the Charedi lifestyle.

The UK Government needs to make a decision as to whether they want to let insular religious communities do their own thing without interruption, and to decide where the balance of freedom of freedom of religion lies.

They can act now, or wait until the problem has grown worse later.

About the Author
Eve Sacks is a co-founder of Nahamu, a think-tank lobbying on harms in the Charedi community, and a trustee of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK.