What Schonfield got wrong on the Schools Bill

A few weeks ago I published an article in the Jewish Chronicle on the UK Government’s proposed policy in the Schools Bill to stop Charedi parents sending their children to a yeshiva ketanah at age 13. You can read the article here. I argued, based on well-founded principles in debates about liberty, plurality and religious freedom that it was wrong for the majority to impose their will on the minority and that parents had a right to educate their children according to their beliefs. I drew on the close (although for sure not perfect) analogy to the 1972 US Supreme Court judgement that allowed Amish parents to stop sending their children for compulsory secular education at age 13.

Well, lots of people were really happy with my article and lots of people were very unhappy. Not surprising, it’s an emotive issue. Amos Schonfield, as I understand it someone of Charedi background who has become secular, is CEO of Mavar, an organisation that serves to “support strictly Orthodox Jews to find a new path in life”. He wrote a rebuttal to my article “The Schools Bill is welcome and worthwhile”. Well, emotive is perhaps an understatement. There is indeed no zealot like a convert, even in reverse.

Whilst of course I appreciate the difficult journey that Mr Schonfield has been on, that does not in itself change the particulars of the argument. Mr Schonfield I fear shows his colours by suggesting that the Charedi lifestyle can be “preserved”. This echoes a response to the article I got from someone else who told me that they “delighted” in the existence of the Charedi community and only want to set it on the right path. Can you imagine for example someone talking about preserving or delighting in the continuation of the black community, or the gay community? The condescension then I think becomes more apparent.

Charedi Jews are not a museum curio to be preserved by the beneficent permission of the majority community, any more than any other minority are.  They are a living breathing faith community with as much right to their particular ideals and values as anybody else.

Mr Schonfeld also suggests that I argued that it should not be easy to leave a faith community. I did nothing of the sort. If I was asked my opinion by Charedi Jews about how they should behave if someone wanted to stop being religious, I would argue that they should support them as much as they can and realise that they are still their family.

The point I was making, lost on Mr Schonfeld, is that there is no argument from first principles that leaving any community should be easy. If you stop and think about it for a second, this is in a sense obvious. All communities create barriers to entry. If you are a Goth or a Skinhead, then if you stop following the clothing regulations and other regulations imposed by that group, you won’t be one of them any more, not in the same way – you will be in a sense cast out of the group.

If you are a politician who crosses the floor to leave one party and join another, your former colleagues will mark you as a turncoat – maybe cut you dead in the street if they see you again. If you are a member of the left-wing glitterati and you suddenly start supporting right wing positions (or opposing antisemitism on the left) look how fast you will loose friends (just ask Melanie Phillips or Eve Barlow). And so on. This is how the world works – otherwise there would be no such concept as a group or community. It’s unclear why this should per se be different particularly for faith communities.

A common argument for not allowing communities like the Amish and Charedi Jews to opt out of secular education is that it means they will put a burden on the state in terms of benefits etc.. Yet there is no evidence in England that communities are any worse off than lower income groups in the general community and Schonfield fails to present any clear evidence that this is the case – perhaps because it does not really exist.

On the Supreme Court, of course one could disagree with its decision (and the Court itself  had a dissenting opinion) – I raised it simply to show that there are different perspectives on issue in liberal democracies.

Schonfield is more on the money when he suggests there are other ways of approaching this issue. As in Israel, one could work collaboratively with communities on initiatives for training and education that actually respect their way of life. All sorts of initiatives could be developed and supported by Government. That, of course, would not involve being able to look down on the Charedi world. To see them as deficient, as lacking.
Perhaps Mr Schonfield and others should take a moment to think about what it is that the Charedim find so worrying about our world, and just for a moment think about whether it is clear where the lack lies. He talks about issues of safeguarding – and these are of course important to address. Yet look at online pornography, the pandemic across the world of young people sexting each other intimate pictures of themselves, of 11-year-olds addicted to porn, and epidemics of knife crime in London. Look at the sex abuse scandals ignored by the enlightened chattering classes in Telford, and Sheffield and all over England. The Charedim choose something different – that act of choosing is as Judaism always has been, difficult and revolutionary. People hate to see things that are different so they try to stamp them out. That’s why religious freedom is important. That’s why Mr Schonfield, whatever his background, is wrong on the Schools Bill.
About the Author
Joseph Mintz is Associate Professor in Education at UCL Institute of Education. He engages in research on inclusion, special educational needs, teacher education for inclusion and has led research projects funded by government and national agencies. He has written for the Jewish Chronicle, the Algemeiner and Times Higher Education. He regularly presents on issues of inclusion and special education in a range of national and international forums. His views are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.

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