There is a sense that the British Times has taken a leaf out of the Gray Lady’s book
nother week, another Times attack on the chassidic education system — except that this time around, it’s not the NYT, but the Times of London, and the targets of the front-page exposé aren’t in Brooklyn but within miles of Buckingham Palace.
“Thousands of British boys as old as 16 can barely read and write English, with some being routinely beaten in unsafe schools,” the influential broadsheet reported last week, “because the government allows a strict religious group to deny them an adequate education.”
Among the group in question — “Hasidic Jews” — girls are allowed to study secular subjects, but young boys “receive a maximum of two hours of secular lessons each day, before vanishing en masse from school rolls at age 13 to enter unregistered religious schools where no English is spoken.”
At fault, explained Andrew Norfolk, the paper’s chief investigative reporter, is a loophole that allows full-time educational institutions to operate without adhering to a basic curriculum under the fiction that the children are being homeschooled.
In a country whose Jewish community has traditionally been content to avoid the spotlight, the lengthy report has caused unease among chareidi leadership.
Coming off the back of months of hostile reporting against chassidic yeshivos by the New York Times, there is a sense that the British Times has taken a leaf out of the Gray Lady’s book.
But despite the obvious parallels, there are a number of differences that make the British case potentially more serious than in America.
The first is the local Jewish community’s lack of political clout. Unlike in New York, where Orthodox numbers mean that even national politicians take notice — as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy did this week, visiting the Skverer Rebbe — Orthodox Jews are a marginal constituency.
When negative reports about the chareidi community surface, it’s in no politician’s interest to fight back.
Even where politicians can be persuaded to take up the cudgel, they find themselves battling an entrenched “deep state” of enlightened bureaucrats who make policy heedless of their political masters.
That outcome was highlighted by the so-called “chinuch crisis” of a few years back, in which understandings reached with the education minister proved difficult to impose on the country’s powerful — and progressive — bureaucracy.
A second, related difference working to the British chareidi community’s disadvantage is the lack of any real social conservatism in the country.
The late Rabbi Avrohom Pinter z”l, a leading chareidi askan, once pointed out how exposed the country’s chareidi community is in terms of natural allies: “Go to any university, and you’ll see plenty of Muslim hijabs, but you won’t see a sheitel,” he told me.
There is no equivalent of the evangelical bloc in America, which skews the American right conservative on social issues. In contrast, many of Britain’s governing Conservative Party politicians would comfortably fit in the Democratic Party in the US.
So, when a newspaper of the Times’ heft runs a negative story like the above, there is no religious rights lobby to come to the community’s defense.
But look under the hood, and the similarity between the two cases goes beyond the “Times vs. Chassidim” headline.
What both cases have in common is that the media scrutiny has been triggered by disaffected former chareidim who’ve turned their crusading zeal to reform the communities that they’ve left.
And in both cases, these lobbyists push on the open door created by an elite culture that has swung decisively against socially conservative values.
In America, progressive values now dominate corporate boardrooms, academia, and mainstream media.
In Britain, that fact was starkly illustrated just two weeks ago, when the candidacy of Kate Forbes for the head of the Scottish National Party — Scotland’s dominant political faction — was destroyed when she told an interviewer that she was opposed to recognition of anything other than traditional marriage.
In that context, the issue of Britain’s unregistered chassidic schools is about more than basic government standards, which most chareidi schools actually comply with.
It’s about a real sense that what’s on trial is the entire religious conservatism that the schools represent.
In that light, the key lines in the Times’ report were not so much about the inability of the children to read English, but the reference to the “little possibility of choosing a life outside the ultra-Orthodox world” — a situation that Orthodox parents view as an ideal, not a problem.
To be clear, despite the local chareidi community’s relative lack of clout, no one is about to wholesale clamp down on religious Jewish schools.
But as the moral consensus of the country — and especially elite opinion — has shifted, chareidi schools and the values they exist to serve have been left exposed.
It’s a chill wind that has blown across the Atlantic from New York to London, and for chassidic education in the crosshairs of both broadsheets, harder times are here. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 952)
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