The sword of Damocles hanging over Torah education in the United Kingdom threatens not just the Torah education system but the very viability of Torah Judaism in the UK. For if Torah Jews cannot educate their children according to Torah values, they cannot remain in the UK any more than they could if the UK banned bris milah.

The separation of children from their parents and the assumption by the state of the traditional parental role is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia both encouraged children to inform on their parents, and instilled in children from a young age that their exclusive loyalty is to the state, and not to their parents or any other associational group.

By contrast, classic liberal states have given to parents the primary responsibility for raising their children. In two landmark education cases nearly a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “liberty” was violated by Oregon’s ban on all private schooling, including parochial (Pierce v. Society of Sisters), and Nebraska’s ban on foreign-language instruction to those who had not completed eighth grade (Meyer v. Nebraska). Liberal constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe describes the two cases as recognizing the family as the center of value-formation and value-transmission against the standardizing hand of the state. He describes these functions as a fundamental aspect of liberty.

That parental liberty is not unlimited, however. Courts have frequently intervened, for instance, to appoint alternative guardians for children whose parents sought to deny them lifesaving medical care. In any case, a UK Department for Education (DfE) document published in March casually ignores both parental and religious rights. It blithely notes that the curricular requirements set forth in the DfE’s regulations interpreting a 2015 statute might conflict with the religious beliefs of some groups, and may therefore result in some children being forced to attend schools that are anathema to their and their parents’ religious beliefs. But rigorous implementation of the regulations is nevertheless justified according to the document by the “wider interests of the children” and the need for the State to instill “fundamental British values.”

Yeah, right, the Jewish children of Gateshead will attend the local public schools and happily mix with the youngsters of local families with whom they have always lived in such harmony.

In Yoder v. Wisconsin, the U.S. Supreme Court exempted Amish children from Wisconsin’s compulsory schooling statute past the age of 14, absent any showing that the children were ill-prepared for Amish life or that the Amish as a group were deficient in fulfilling the duties of citizenship. The DfE makes no effort to demonstrate that Orthodox Jewish children are ill-prepared for life or that the UK suffers some identifiable harm by virtue of their religious schooling, unless, of course, growing up to be Torah Jews is itself defined as a harm.

 

ORTHODOX JEWS in England find themselves caught in an unhappy confluence of factors pushing an anti-religious agenda. The first such factor is the legitimate governmental fears about incitement in Muslim schools and mosques. In Virginia, for instance, a Saudi-supported Islamic academy used textbooks advocating violence against Christians, Shiites, and Jews. And regular worshippers at the Finsbury Park mosque have demonstrated a propensity to act upon frequent exhortations to “kill the kuft [denier of Mohammed].”

But where are the reports of Torah Jews harassing and physically menacing other groups in the UK or elsewhere, even when those groups are openly engaged in practices forbidden by the Torah? They do not exist.

It is Jews who are most likely to be victims of hate crimes and physical assault in the UK. By labeling Torah Judaism as at odds with “fundamental British values,” the British government will legitimize those attacks and likely increase their frequency.

The second, and probably more important, factor behind the current efforts to impose a curriculum on girls as young as three to eight that would, in the quaint old phrase, “make a sailor blush,” is the aggressive gender equality lobby. That lobby is not content with civic equality or even with recognition of their rites. It insists that anyone who views their practices as “unnatural” or wrong, as has virtually every Western society for millennia, be silenced and reeducated.

All must pay obeisance at the altar of gender fluidity and whatnot. And part of that agenda is that children of kindergarten age be educated in matters our society has traditionally consigned to families and chassan and kallah teachers. The DfE insists that every Jewish student be taught that there is no scientific evidence for the Torah’s account of Maaseh Bereishis. Yet much of its gender educations consists of an anti-scientific, utopian revocation of human nature.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer once convinced the New York Educational Department not to require its AIDS prevention curriculum in Orthodox schools on the grounds that traditional Jewish education constitutes the most effective preventative for that particular ill.

The same could be said for much of what the Department for Education seeks to impose. They would educate Orthodox children about societal problems that traditional education makes unthinkable. And it is not as if the education that the government would impose has been so notably effective. Public Health England published a report last week that found cases of certain STDs (socially transmitted diseases) have risen 148% since 2008.

Equally odd is the insistence on imposing the same civics education that has produced the British soccer hooligans feared everywhere they tread in England and on the continent. 

 

SPEAKING OF RABBI SHERER, the current crisis reflects the failure of UK Jewry to emulate what Rabbi Sherer made his central task upon assuming the helm of Agudath Israel of America — the development of an independent Orthodoxy that would represent itself in the halls of government and not be dependent on mainstream Jewish organizations.

Individual Orthodox Jews in the UK have over the years developed close relationships with particular British politicians, sometimes to the great benefit of the community. But there has been no communal organization to represent Orthodoxy on an ongoing basis and to develop ties with bureaucrats, as well as elected officials. Governmental representation has, in general, been left to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. (Gedalia Guttentag detailed much of this failure in these pages last week.)

Read in the biography of Rabbi Sherer how his close relationship with a single bureaucrat in the federal Department of Education, Dr. John Proffitt, was essential to the creation of AARTS, the accrediting agency that allows yeshivos to be eligible for crucial government funding. Or study his cultivation of Donald Nolan, the deputy New York state educational commissioner for more than a decade.

(An interesting side note: When the manuscript of the Rabbi Sherer biography arrived at ArtScroll, there were those who said it was far too long and technically detailed. But the late Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz insisted that it be published as is, even if sales were thereby diminished, as it would serve as the handbook for Jewish askanim in the future.)

Rabbi Sherer also developed alliances with other groups, most notably the Catholic Church, with frequently overlapping interests. To date, there has been precious little evidence of that in the UK.

Where, for instance, are all the eloquent voices raised on behalf of the traditional love of liberty of the English-speaking peoples in the Brexit debate — former education minister Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan, Douglas Murray, Melanie Phillips — in the current educational debate? I wonder whether anyone in our community has even enlisted their assistance.

One benefit of alliances with other groups is that it facilitates the development of arguments that may be more compelling to a general audience. On that score, our community should be represented at the next Tikvah Fund conference on Jews and Conservatism. The defense of private education is one of the conference’s central tenets.

The battle of UK Orthodoxy to preserve Torah education will soon be all of ours, and for many of the same reasons. Just remember that four of the states with the highest concentrations of Torah Jews — New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California — are among the most “progressive” states in the US. The lessons of the current crisis facing Torah education in the UK must be learned and the battle joined by all Orthodox Jews in the West.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 715. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com