OPINION: Does the Bloom Review into faith go far enough?

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OPINION: Does the Bloom Review into faith go far enough?

In the wake of the landmark government faith report, Yehudis Fletcher argues we should never settle for intolerable harms in the name of religious tolerance

A Charedi wedding. Photo by Yaakov Lederman/Flash90
A Charedi wedding. Photo by Yaakov Lederman/Flash90

Karl Popper said that: “If everyone is tolerant of every idea, then intolerant ideas emerge. Tolerant people will tolerate this intolerance, and the intolerant people will not tolerate the tolerant people”.

Colin Bloom’s report into faith engagement reminds me of this same principle – in order to maintain a tolerant society, there are things we should not tolerate. The review specifies forced marriage within the Charedi community, and unregistered yeshivas with poor or nonexistent safeguarding frameworks as examples of these.

Yehudis Fletcher

Religious tolerance should not, and must not be conflated with ignoring harms perpetrated against people of faith by our own communities.

Parents might argue that it is their deeply-held religious belief that their son should only study sacred texts, not wasting his time obtaining a secular education, similar to that which sisters receive.

However, we know that this practice denies the son his right to education. What follows includes the indignity of extremely limited career options and resultant benefit dependency.

There is only one registered school in Stamford Hill for Charedi boys post bar-mitzvah with one class per year group. That means that besides for the handful of boys who travel to north west London each day, almost every post bar mitzvah boy in Stamford Hill attends a full day yeshiva, and is exposed to all the risks associated with such venues. For this reason, safeguarding leaders in Hackney council have desperately called for legislative action to address this ongoing problem.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) brought us testimony on how abuse is covered up as community leaders  deal with it “internally”. Perhaps this is due to the laws of mesirah (informing) or maybe it’s to protect the facade that there aren’t frum predators, but this approach leaves perpetrators free to harm others. When a victim of abuse appeared on Israeli TV over a decade after original allegations against the same Charedi man, the harm of leaving predators free to reoffend becomes clear.

Other harms didn’t make it into the Bloom Report: consider the Chasidic woman who wants to drive. Even if her husband is open to her driving; both husband and wife will be aware that a breach of social norms will have consequences; soft shunning in the synagogue, children denied places at school and the family downgraded for shidduchim. Given the potential repercussions, concluding that its best not to drive is not a real choice. How can we tolerate that people living in the UK in 2023 are denied fundamental freedoms, which society takes for granted?

Nahamu listens to those with lived experience inside the Charedi community, and lobbies on systemic harms under 5 categories; denial of education, forced marriage, coerced criminality (as in, the normalisation of benefit fraud and tax evasion), covering up of abuse and limits on personal autotomy.

Nahamu has established itself as the only UK charity to advocate for Charedim who are otherwise unheard, a voice for those for whom the cost of dissent is too high.

There are aspects of the Charedi practice that we should not just tolerate, but celebrate. There is no doubt that religious groups shine when it comes to chesed. Covid highlighted these strengths, and the mechanisms employed by religious groups during that difficult time provided a backdrop for the conversations that fed into the Bloom Review.

But being kind is not enough. We should never settle for intolerable harms, in the name of religious tolerance.

  • Yehudis Fletcher is co-founder of Nahamu, a think tank countering extremism and culturally specific harm in the Jewish community
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