Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

20,000 Londoners who are glad of Britain's tolerant multiculturalism

I recently watched an excellent BBC documentary about the 20,000 Hasidic Jews living in Stamford Hill, North London. I remember seeing them when I lived in London and sometimes got the Victoria Line tube. It's strange, though, Here is a community which is resolute in its lack of integration, generally speaking English only when necessary. Every part of daily life is governed by religious law; the men have to have beards and ringlets, and must wear black garb and big black hats. The women must dress modestly and cover their hair (often using wigs for the purpose). Men and women may not mix socially before marriage, and in social situations such as wedding receptions the sexes are segregated by a curtain. Many male children are taken out of school early and sent to Israel abroad for intensive religious indoctrination. Marriage outwith the Hasidic community is unheard of, and marriages are therefore all arranged by professional matchmakers. It sounds as alien and uninviting as could be: yet almost all the participants in the programme came across as delightful people, albeit somewhat weird to our eyes.

It just shows what a difference the producer's intentions make. Clearly in this case the intent was to make a sympathetic documentary. Consider, though, how the BBC would probably have approached a similar documentary about a Muslim community. We'd have seen the same lack of integration, reluctance to speak English or to mix with outsiders. We would have been shown the arranged marriages and the sexual segregation, the way in which women are forbidden to shake hands with strangers; the dress code and the hair coverings. We would have been shown the boys sent off to madrassas in Pakistan or the Middle East. Would we also have been shown the kindness, the sense of humour, the willingness to admit to faults? Would we have been shown community members letting their hair down and partying? Of course we wouldn't: and much would have been made of the education at foreign madrassas, whereas the seemingly typical child who had spent five years in a yeshiva in Israel (or possibly one of the settlements) was barely mentioned. I am not suggesting that this documentary should have made the Hasidic Jews out to be sinister or a bad thing: I'm sure they suffer enough distrust and ignorance, like any other community whose neighbours know little of them and see them only as animated costumes. But I wish someone would make an equally positive documentary about one of our less integrated Muslim enclaves. I'm sure we would all learn something. However, given the BBC's notorious anti-Muslim bias, I shan't be holding my breath for such a programme from that source.

Over on Channel Four, meanwhile, I watched a very different programme in the Unreported World series, all about Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews in Israel. Normal Israelis despise these guys because they refuse either to work or to do military service, living entirely off government handouts while pursuing their religious studies. However they all have enormous families (up to a dozen children) and as their numbers continue to rocket their influence grows. They organise morality squads in their districts to enforce modest female dress, as well as demanding that women sit at the back of buses away from the men. At least as far as sex-segregated buses are concerned the Supreme Court ruled that any segregation had to be voluntary, but I dare say there is a lot of, er, persuasion applied to women on these buses to make sure they volunteer. I did however love the feisty secular Jewish woman whacking the Haredi guy with a rolled-up newspaper.

Not all spirited women come off so lightly. The programme interviewed a woman who had obtained a divorce, after which she had begun seeing other men. For this crime against morality she was badly beaten up, and told to expect worse if she re-offended. For the Haredim consider themselves unfettered by Israeli secular law, recognising only the law of the Talmudic and the Torah. One Haredi was quoted as saying that the Haredim were the only real Jews in Israel: the rest just happened to be born Jewish.

The differences between the two communities are surely not wholly a matter of directorial attitude. The Stamford Hill Jews might agree with the Israeli Haredim on many things, including treatment of their women, but I doubt whether they would feel unashamed of beating them up. It will most likely be to the Haredim that the Londoners send their kids for religious education, and given the way in which some yeshivas in the Occupied Territories are breeding grounds for Jewish terrorism (as exemplified by the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, still commemorated as a heroic martyr by many settlers) and hatred of non-Jews, it's likely that some of them will come back as radicalised Zionists. Yet the London Jews do not attempt to ram their moral codes, strict as they are, down gentile throats. One can only suppose that orthodox Jews in Britain feel vulnerable as a minority within a minority, whereas in Israel Jews run the game (apologies to Jackson C Frank for the pun). I dare say a government stipend for studying the laws you propose to follow instead of those made by that government will buy a fair amount of arrogance.

I suppose you could look on both communities as failures of multiculturalism, but that would be a mistake. The Haredim's feelings of superiority to, and alienation from, other Jews is merely a refinement of Israel's constitutional stratification into top dogs and underdogs, or Jews and gentiles. Given that mis en scene, a feeling of superiority by those who in their own eyes are the only real Jews is inevitable. Meanwhile, I believe that one of the strengths of British society is its ability to tolerate difference without demanding conformity.

I think the mistake which Islamophobes like Mel Phillips, Uncle Jimmy (BlairSupporter), Allen West, Peter King and the rest make is to imagine, as it were, that all Jews are Hasidic. And the deliberate lie which the likes of Geert Wilders, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and BareNakedIslam make use of to advance their evil agenda is to equate (so to speak) every Hasidic community with the worst excesses of the Israeli Haredim.

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