On Thursday morning, The JC ran a story about Belz in Stamford Hill ‘banning’ women from driving. To be fair to the JC, they wrote the story in measured tones and praised the Belz education system, commenting that their schools in Stamford Hill are rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. Later in the day, they also included a statement issued by Neshei Belz, in response to the story, quoting the Belz ladies as saying that they felt, “extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”
This may well be true, but one does wonder why men’s values might not be compromised by those factors? [A reliable source in Stamford Hill has now told me that ‘senior chassidic rabbanim and dayanim [there] do not drive for those very reasons’]
Disclosure – I drive, as do many of the Golders Green rebbetzins, including the wives of the LBD dayanim and rabbanim further to the ‘right’. I consider it an essential life skill and our oldest daughter recently passed her driving test.
However, I would like to ignore the merits, if any, of the ban and focus on one specific point. Due to the JC’s coverage, which is the front page story in the print edition, by Thursday evening the story had appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, Metro, the Daily Mail and on ITV news. Not all of these papers had such measured coverage as the JC and unsurprisingly, the comments sections featured the usual ‘intelligent and thoughtful’ responses which appear following any story about religion.
Belz, despite being described in the Guardian as ‘a marginal Hasidic sect’ originating in Ukraine, are a large and well organised chassidus. They run amazing chessed programmes and their medical backup service, Ezra Lemarpeh, is well known and admired throughout the Jewish world. If the Belzer Rebbe feels that it is not appropriate, for whatever reason, for Belz women to drive, it is really an in-house matter.
Jews across the world are beleaguered by anti-Semitism and the spillover of anti-Israel sentiment. There is widespread assimilation and high levels of religious and communal lethargy. Why then does the JC feel that it will benefit the community in any way to publicise a story affecting a few hundred people in Stamford Hill, with whom most of its readers will never have any contact?
Yes, OK, as a crank story, it’s a good one. It’s another opportunity to bash perceived religious extremism and roll out the Jewish feminists to decry the ‘patriarchal’ Orthodox community. But on a communal level – why draw extra unfavourable attention to ourselves?
The JC is loudly protesting the potential neo-Nazi demonstration in Golders Green; it often wonders whether the community has a future or what incentive there is for young Jews to remain within it.
Yet here we have a pleasant, hard-working, law-abiding community, whose schools have been praised by Ofsted as having a ‘very effective British values policy’, being mocked, not just within the Jewish community, but in the wider community too. In fact, the headline in the JC’s editorial discussing this story is ‘Ridiculous driving’ and the observation is that ridicule is the stated aim.
There are those who say that the level of communal coercion within Chassidic communities is such that it is only by exposing stories such as this that those people who wish to remain part of the community, but do not want to be restricted in this way, have any chance of living a ‘normal’ life.
However, much as I would like to believe that the JC had a higher motive in mind, I suspect that, sadly, this was not the case, and the only thing on their mind was increasing their readership, whatever the cost to the community.