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A British community under threat from the State – Part 1

BRITAIN’S 80,000 ultra-orthodox Haredi Jewish community are facing an existential crisis and threat which cannot be overstated. 

In March, the Times ran a damning ‘investigation’ into ‘Hasidic’ boys’ schools, more correctly known as yeshivas, claiming these schools left ‘Jewish pupils barely able to read or write English’.  It gave such a distorted and biased account that, according to Rabbi Asher Gratt, a leading figure in the Haredi community, it could only be described as a direct attack on this community. He contacted TCW with his anxieties. 

He told us that when he heard the Times’s article was to be published he wrote in advance to several of its staffers, including the education editor, offering to talk to them in his capacity as an experienced educator within the community. They ignored his emails and neither did they seek comments from anyone else credible within the community. If they had, they would have been able to address allegations of illiteracy and abuse in yeshivas rather than indulging in anti-Semitic tropes. 

It was not long after that the Rabbi contacted TCW with his concerns about the impact that government plans for introducing controls on currently unregistered educational institutions – for so-called ‘missing children’ – would have on the yeshivas.

Under the proposed legislation currently going through parliament children in the many Haredi faith schools could become categorised as children missing education – their schools, no longer counting as independent schools, would be forced into either closing or come under the State system and losing their identity. This is because the government plans to change the definition of independent schools to exclude many such faith schools.

Why does the Rabbi fear this will happen to the Haredi schools in particular? The reason, he explained, is that their schools have already come in for what has seemed like a targeted attack as in the Times and elsewhere. Rabbi Gratt says that none of the journalists who have reported negatively on their schools have ever visited or checked for themselves whether their various accusations of educational neglect are true.

Furthermore, shortly after the condemnatory Times article appeared, attacks on Haredi Jews escalated. That two incidents, see here and here, occurred on the very day the article was published, was, Rabbi Gratt wrote in an email to TCW, both alarming and unexpected. 

The Rabbi is a former school teacher and governor in the Haredi community. He has written and published educational textbooks used by thousands of Jewish students. He ran his own telecoms business too, employing more than 300 people.

Since then, with his rabbinical colleagues, he has been actively campaigning both against the proposed new compulsory register that will designate children in their faith schools as ‘missing children’ – albeit only missing from the State system, not from education or from home – and against the government’s commitment to impose controls on currently unregistered educational institutions.  The register is part of the government’s proposed Schools Bill legislation, a cross-party initiative currently stalled in parliament.

Rabbi Gratt himself responded forcefully in these pages in July when the Government ran a consultation on the matter. He advised the growing number of homeschool parents who would also be affected to respond to the consultation and state their concerns too, to assert their right to withdraw their children from a State system they were unhappy with and their freedom to home educate. For the proposed missing child register is not designed to address the genuine problem of truanting State school children, often the children of non-coping parents, but is directed at parents who reject the state system and wish to educate their children at home or elsewhere.

In addition to this consultation, the government has set up another regarding changes to its Elective Home Education policies, which includes the idea of making the State’s nebulous notion of a ‘suitable education’ compulsory. Given the political interest in imposing ‘British values’ in schools, including extremely controversial Relationships and Sex Education, and in circumventing or undermining parental rights, such legislation is also likely to be resurrected. It is unsurprising that the Haredi community feel their fundamental purpose to give their children a traditional moral and religious upbringing is specifically under threat.

Despite the government’s worship of diversity, while other cultures and practices are tolerated theirs is not.

After researching the offending legislation we decided at TCW that I should approach Rabbi Gratt to ask if I could visit one of the yeshivas to see whether the Times’s accusation of educational neglect and its blanket condemnation of the schools held any truth. The Rabbi and the Beis Medrash Elyon School in West Hendon kindly agreed to my request and invited me to spend a day in their schools, to talk to him, the staff and children. 

What I saw was not educational neglect but a clash of ideals where state education and faith-based education collide. What I learnt convinced me that if the proposed legislation is passed it will undermine the very foundations of the Haredi community – its belief system and religious-based education – and they will have little choice but to leave a country so hostile to their raison d’etre.

What I witnessed convinced me, too, that the government and MSM are treating the Haredi community in a way that is at best indifferent and insensitive, at worst hostile. I hope that this series will offer a proper insight into orthodox Haredi education, a more balanced picture than the MSM has given and will explain the ‘tropes’ about them that have been uncritically, if unintentionally, propagated by the MSM, the government and Humanist UK.

Tomorrow and over the rest of the week I will describe the Haredi community, their obligation to give their children a Torah education, of what their education consists, further details of the government’s proposals and how they will destroy this ancient tradition and a culture dedicated to its children.

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