There can be no turning a blind eye to religious coercion when a child's future is at stake

The Independent
August 15, 2016

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in north London are raising £1m to fight legal cases to try to stop children leaving the community when their parents divorce, as we reported today. The fundraising drive in the Charedi community aims to try to “rescue” children in custody cases when one parent wants to leave the community and its strict culture of refusing to engage with wider society.

At the level of abstract principle, there is nothing wrong with this. In a free society – even one ironically regarded by the Charedi as “evil” – people are free to raise money to help fight court cases in defence of causes they support. Supporters of the 130,000 Labour Party members of less than six months’ standing were entitled, for example, to crowdfund the costs of their unsuccessful case to overturn the decision of the party’s National Executive to exclude them from voting in the leadership election.

There is no doubt, too, that the Charedi community feels that its culture is threatened by the prevailing norms of British society. It may be a paradox, but its members feel that they are entitled to use whatever methods they can under the law of the land to defend what they call their “pure and holy” children from corruption by the irreligious outside world.

Yet, in practice, the danger is that Charedi rabbis and husbands are using the law to intimidate women and children and to put pressure on them to stay in the faith. We quoted a spokesperson for GesherEU, a charity supporting people wishing to leave Charedi communities, who said the fundraising drive was a “scare tactic”. It makes it clear to spouses – usually, though not exclusively, wives – that they will be ostracised if they try to abandon the ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith: “This does work to some extent and deters many who would otherwise leave knowing they will be facing a legal battle with possibly devastating consequences.”

The courts appear to be aware of the problem. One judge said in a ruling three years ago that the courts “may have to intervene with costs orders in future” to take into account the imbalance of resources available to observant parents, well-funded by the community, and those wanting to leave, sometimes relying on volunteer legal representation.

Where cases do reach court, we can be reasonably confident that the interests of the children will be protected. The reason for the fundraising drive is that the courts tend to award children’s residence to the non-Charedi parent. But the worrying aspect is the pressure put on spouses who are questioning the Charedi culture, and on their children, in cases that never end up in court. That is where our attention should be focused: on the bullying and sometimes domestic abuse of (mostly) mothers who want to leave the community; on the attempt to separate them from their children if they succeed in leaving; and on the indoctrination of children in a community that tries to isolate them from the values of the tolerant and diverse society around them.

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.