Britain’s ultra Orthodox Haredi community is facing an existential crisis and threat. TCW writer Karen Harradine reached this conclusion following her visit to one of their schools and after interviewing its headmaster and Asher Gratt, the senior Rabbi in the community who first drew TCW’s attention to the impact of proposed schools legislation on the community. The previous parts, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here and Part 4 here, explain why it would not just destroy their faith-based yeshiva schools, but the ancient tradition of Torah education and their community too. This last part tells how their attempts to communicate with the Conservative government have been met with a blank refusal to engage.
I MET Rabbi Asher Gratt and his wife Dina in a quiet house in Hendon later in the day of my visit the Beis Medrash Elyon High School for boys described in Part 3. Immaculately dressed in traditional Haredi clothes, they welcomed me warmly.
Rabbi Gratt, a courteous, cerebral and quietly spoken man, was anxious to explain how threatening and traumatic the Haredi have found the government’s proposals that would change the definition of independent schools and establish a compulsory register for so-called missing children, children in fact who attend their faith-based schools.
Reading all the considerable correspondence with the government they let me see brought their fears – that these policies will force them to assimilate and shatter their community – into sharp relief. A compulsory register, the letters made clear, that would keep a record of a child’s ‘ethnicity’ has a worrying historical parallel and would be a hammer blow with traumatic associations for their community. Given their history of persecution and genocide, Jews are understandably wary of government census forms, lists and registers – the Nazis used census forms to hunt down Jews for extermination.
Prominent also in the Jewish consciousness is the memory of the Soviet persecution of Jews. The Haredi are concerned that the Tories might be emulating aspects of this persecution in which the Soviets sought to exterminate the practice of Judaism by closing down synagogues, punishing Jews wanting to emigrate to Israel, and indoctrinating children with anti-religious dogma. The fear is always that this could happen again.
Is it any wonder that the Haredi want to keep their children away from corrosive state overreach and surveillance? Torah education, they explain, has a lineage of three thousand years, unbroken even by persecution and genocide, which they are committed to continuing.
Rabbi Gratt describes himself as belonging to the strictly Orthodox Jewish community. He has been at the forefront of the Haredi protest campaign against the Schools Bill and this summer, alongside other prominent rabbis from the Jewish community, he established the British Rabbinical Union to advocate for the educational rights of 10,000 Haredi children. The union, which is run by rabbis who are experts in Jewish law and education, gives rabbinical guidance for the protest campaign, and advises on content for letters written to relevant ministers and civil servants. Given that many of the schools and yeshivas feel intimidated both by the government and Ofsted, and feel unable to voice their concerns freely, this umbrella organisation offers them, the children and parents, vital representation.
Together with the Rabbinical Committee of the Traditional Charedi Chinuch, Defending Traditional Education and Holocaust survivors, they have sent numerous letters and emails to the government outlining their concerns. All I saw were politely written, containing detailed and expert information on Jewish law, emphasised the importance of a Torah education for religious Jews, and explained how the proposed legislation will impact the Haredi. Several pointed out that the discourse used in Parliament to discuss religious Jewish schools and yeshivas was reminiscent of phrases some personally remembered hearing in 1930s Nazi Germany.
Disturbingly most of this correspondence, including their requests for meetings and an open dialogue, has either been ignored or rudely dismissed by an assortment of previous Education Secretaries and Ministers including Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse and Nadhim Zahawi. Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, and her colleague Alice Wilcock, Head of Education Policy, who were also written to, have failed to reply. Those who did reply sent generic responses which simply repeated sinister-sounding ‘suitable education’ newspeak. None answered Rabbi Gratt’s pertinent inquiry as to whether any research had been conducted on the impact on children of their ‘suitable’ social engineering, aka gender identity education.
Assurances from the current Secretary of Education, Gillian Keegan, and Baroness (Diana) Barran, the Minister for the School System and Student Finance, that they would meet Rabbi Gratt and his associates have yet to materialise. A promise of a response to a letter sent by the union to Baroness Barran a few weeks earlier, from Keegan’s private secretary in August, has never materialised either.
A letter to Zahawi, then Secretary of State for Education, by a group of Haredi Holocaust survivors last June which thanked Britain for providing sanctuary to their community, and implored him to reconsider the Schools Bill, explaining its disturbing resonance with their experiences in Nazi Germany, received, Rabbi Gratt said, a very aggressive reply. A copy of this letter, forwarded to the office of King Charles at Clarence House has received no reply from the self-styled ‘Defender of All Faiths’.
All requests for ministers to visit Haredi schools and yeshivas have been disregarded. The only responses received repeat their ‘concern’ that Haredi children are isolated from their peers, and their education conflicts with ‘fundamental British values’. But as Rabbi Gratt asks: ‘if they are so interested in what goes on in Haredi schools, why don’t they visit one?’
While they ignore the concerns of the community, local education authorities continue to harass them. Under the pretext of ‘safeguarding’ children, they send bullying letters to Haredi parents in Stamford Hill and threaten to enter their homes. For a community legitimately wary of outsiders, this is a daunting prospect.
The stark truth appears to be one of a Conservative Government not in the slightest bit bothered if their policies force the Haredi to send their children abroad to be educated; and whose obtuseness and rudeness raises the question of their fitness to decide what a ‘suitable education’ is.
These ministers and civil servants appear blind to the fact that their proposals would limit yeshivas to operating only in the evenings and at weekends, an alarming insight into their ignorance when it comes to Judaism for which there is no excuse given the plethora of information provided to them in the letters and emails. They stubbornly fail to grasp the concept, spelled out in meticulous detail by Haredi campaigners, that the Jewish religion is not something which is practised a couple of hours a week and then forgotten about. A Torah education demands far more than a Sunday School lesson. As Rabbi Gratt puts it: ‘we live and breathe, we think and talk and act religion 24/7.’
In this astonishing show of hubris, these Conservative politicians appear to be more concerned with ‘misgendering’ in schools than the impending destruction of Jewish religious life in Britain.
How unconscionable that any Western, liberal democratic government would want to demolish, or be so intolerant of, an entirely non-threatening tradition and cultural heritage.