For the Jewish News January 17 2020
A new think tank aimed at challenging extremism inside the Jewish community, Nahamu, is being formally launched in London at the end of the month.
Daniel Jonas, its chairman, says: “Nahamu does not want to stop Charedim being Charedi or to encourage people to leave their communities. The Charedi way of life is valuable to many who live in such communities and it would be a tragedy were it precipitously to cease to exist. Rather, Nahamu was set up to ensure that harms caused by inward-facing extremism are recognised and addressed, rather than swept under the carpet”.
Nahamu’s founder, Yehudis Fletcher, says the organisation has undertaken “an enormous risk assessment” within the community. “Everyone has the right to live their religious life as they see fit”, she says, “but we’re also saying that it’s wrong to exert harm on people, whether individuals or across society in the name of religion.”
The risk assessment looks at issues within what Ms Fletcher calls “the more moderate part of the community” as well as the Charedi community, because she says some things have “seeped” into mainstream Anglo-Jewry. Nahamu will monitor where civil law is being broken and people’s rights are being infringed, in five basic fields: women’s rights, education and it potential denial, marriage coercion, the cover-up of child sex abuse and its enabling, and enforced criminality. The latter category relates to people who get married very young, have not enough education for proper work, and end up both working “cash-in-hand” while still claiming social welfare benefits.
Nahamu’s board is wide-ranging: besides Mr Jonas and Ms Fletcher, it includes accountant Eve Sacks, who is co-chair of trustees of JOFA UK, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and helps to run the Hendon Partnership Minyan. Forensic accountant Ben Crowne is a former chair of Limmud, while academic David Toube, a trained barrister, is director of policy for Quilliam International, the counter-extremism think tank. Perhaps the most surprising name on the list is that of Rashad Ali, a former member of the revolutionary Islamist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and now a respected counter-terrorism adviser who works with government agencies.and lectures on radicalisation.
Ms Fletcher is a survivor of child sexual abuse who waived her anonymity to challenge its prevalence within parts of the strictly Orthodox community. She currently studies social policy at Salford University and is a graduate of the UJIA’s Manchester Leadership Programme.
Nahamu, says Ms Fletcher, “says things that other people are not comfortable with”. She says many of the problems which Nahamu has identified are not specific to the Jewish community — “fundamentalism and extremism are really common problems.”
She says that Nahamu “can’t tell people what to do. What we can do is to put out an alternative narrative — and we can also make sure that people who behave badly are held to account”. She says there are not many areas where we need new legislation, but it is more a question of applying such legislation where necessary. For example, Nahamu is now liaising with the government’s Forced Marriage Unit and has introduced FMU officials to people within the Charedi community.
Increasingly, she says, people are approaching Nahamu “with a steady stream of incriminating documents which enables us to build a dossier and a database of what is going on inside the community.”
Nahamu says it will not act as a service provider, but will “support those who wish to live a full and sustaining life of religious observance in the community that they have chosen, as well as those who wish to make changes to their lifestyle or move to a different part of the community.”
That will include advocacy for people who wish to leave the strictly Orthodox community and referring them to the appropriate organisations.
“Judaism believes that the world to come is earned by freedom of choice”, Ms Fletcher says. The Nahamu mission statement adds: “We see a growing body of evidence that extreme religious views within the Jewish community promote behaviours that harm the community: fostering ignorance and bigotry, sustaining criminality and covering up abuse. These behaviours put the whole community at risk.
“The time has come to confront religious extremists, protect those that are harmed by them, and develop models which will enable the whole of the community to build a viable future. The mainstream Jewish community, supported by statutory agencies, must provide new options for those who are trapped in an unsustainable way of life, or those who are simply denied education and freedom and choice.
“As more people feel brave enough to speak out about being trapped in abusive or criminal lifestyles, they encounter a widespread lack of awareness, reluctance to engage with this problem and a lack of understanding of the vectors and behaviours associated with religious extremism”.