On Monday, August 15, The Independent published a piece about the legal fund being collected by Jewish Charedi sects to support members whose spouses seek to take their children out of the community after divorce.

As The Independent reports, ‘The danger is that the law is being used to intimidate women and children, and to put pressure on them to stay in the faith.’ The Charedim are raising a million pounds for the fund.

This leads to the difficulty that unfunded spouses may not be able to afford litigation. Several years ago, the UK made draconian cuts to state legal aid, meaning that only the poorest can even apply.

Three years ago, a judge ruled that the courts ‘may have to intervene with costs orders in future’ but this has no precedental value and has not led to any change. Typically, family court actions in England and Wales take two years in any contested action. Legal fees are often in the tens of thousands of pounds.

In a 1984 family action, Justice Latey ruled in the High Court in London that two children should be moved from the care of their Scientologist father to their mother who had left the group.

Justice Latey made it evident that the mother had been pressured into giving up her children, two years before, by a Scientology ‘chaplain’. The threat of ‘disconnection’ or shunning played a significant part in the mother’s acceptance of the chaplain’s ruling. It is likely that defectors from the Charedi sects will also be shunned.

It is hard enough for anyone to leave a strict sect, but this sort of pressure may deter parents from giving their children the opportunities available in the secular, pluralistic society.

The Independent concludes: ‘The priceless liberalism of British society does not extend to the toleration of religious practices that deprive women, children and non-believers of their autonomy and rights to family life. There can be no turning a blind eye when the future of young people, and their right to be part of the wider British community, is at stake.’

Here at Open Minds we heartily concur.

WHO ARE THE CHAREDI?

The Charedim or Haredim, meaning literally ‘the fearful’ (of God), comprise of strict Orthodox Jewish sects determined to maintain what they consider to be the traditional Jewish way of life. They have their origins in nineteenth century communities that resisted the trend of modernisation. In some ways, these groups are comparable to the Amish or Mennonite communities in the US – they are ‘exclusive’, having separated themselves from a world that they consider to be sinful.

The Charedim, sometimes referred to as ultra-Orthodox Jews, are opposed to both TV and films. Secular newspapers and books are also frowned upon, and they have campaigned against the Internet and insist upon filters for their mobile phones.

Charedi newspapers contain little secular news or advertising and are checked by a rabbinical censor prior to publication. There is no coverage of serious crime or sport and images of women are only rarely permitted.

In Israel, most Charedi sects are opposed to Zionism and have their own political parties, which have taken part in numerous coalition governments. Charedi Jews usually resist conscription into military service, although there is a Charedi battalion consisting mostly of volunteers who are fed the most strictly Kosher food, and do not have to see or interact with females.

In Israel, more than 50 per cent of the Charedim live below the poverty line – as opposed to 22 per cent of the general population. They have very high rates of unemployment. They complain of discrimination in the work place, often based on the inability of the work environment to fulfil their demands, for example that women in the workplace must dress with sufficient modesty.

Charedi are well-known for their black garb (Jews of other persuasions call them sh’chorim or ‘blacks’ because of this). Men usually have beards and women must dress modestly (e.g. be clothed from tip to toe and never wear trousers), and once married must cover their hair (Islam follows this Jewish precedent).

In Israel, Charedi men form ‘modesty patrols’ and will deface any billboard showing scantily clad females (in some ways reminiscent of the religious police in certain Muslim countries).

Charedim also demand that there be no road traffic in their neighbourhoods on the Shabbat (from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday). Some Israeli resorts even have separate beaches for Charedi Jews.

Men and women are segregated – including bus services in New York from 1973 to 2011, when this discrimination was eventually deemed illegal. Under Israeli law, such forced separation is also unlawful. However, in practice, Charedi men and women follow the rule.

Education is also segregated, with boys spending most of their time at school studying the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the Talmud (the books of Jewish law).

Charedi Jews object to the description ‘ultra-Orthodox’ so are also known as ‘strictly Orthodox’.

There are between 1.3 and 1.5 million practitioners in Israel, the US and Western Europe, according to Wikipedia. About ten per cent of the population of Israel – some 750,000 people – are Charedim. An estimated 53,400 Charedim lived in Britain by 2010. They have a high birth rate (5.9 children in the UK, as opposed to the national average of 2.4), and are expected to become the largest part of the UK Jewish community in the next three decades.

An investigation by The Independent found that more than 1000 children in UK Charedi communities were attending illegal schools where secular information is banned and only religious texts are studied. Children may leave school without qualifications and are often unable to speak English.

In the US there are an estimated 468,000 Charedi Jews – almost ten per cent of the Jewish population in the US. Most live in the New York boroughs, especially Brooklyn.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about female disenfranchisement that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!