The atheist and the Charedi go head-to-head

The atheist and the Charedi go head-to-head

For Jewish News March 26 2021

In the dying days of Lockdown Three, national press attention — and that of the Jewish News — turned to apparent wholesale ignoring of pandemic guidelines by members of strictly Orthodox communities in Stamford Hill.

Shops were filled with maskless shoppers, not socially distanced; schools remained open, in defiance of government regulations; and, apparently worst of all, massive weddings were taking place, in hired simcha halls with the windows blacked out to avoid police action.

All of this, duly reported, led the writer and comedian David Baddiel, who bluntly identifies himself as “Jew” on social media, and who has just published a well-received polemic, “Jews Don’t Count”, to wade into the already highly charged debate. “Stupid f***** frummers”, he wrote on Twitter, denouncing this behaviour.

It seemed to me that Baddiel was saying just the same about “the frummers” as he would have people accept that the wider community was saying about Jews in general. I said so, in a column for Jewish News.

On Wednesday night, under the auspices of JW3, a remarkable debate took place between Baddiel and the Charedi social activist, Yehudis Fletcher, chaired by QC Henry Grunwald, former president of the Board of Deputies and present chair of World Jewish Relief and chair of the National Holocaust Centre.

The conversation, billed as “Reconcilable Differences”, was remarkable both for its good humour and respect between Baddiel and Fletcher, and for the sense of a learning curve and some sort of accommodation reached between representatives of two very different kinds of Jew — atheist, secular Baddiel, and religiously observant Fletcher, a campaigner against sexual abuse and founder of Nahamu, the first UK think-tank to tackle religious extremism within Anglo-Jewry.

It was Baddiel’s polite disagreement with me on Twitter — and subsequent on-line argument with Yehudis Fletcher — which led to the event — and it was clear that there was an appetite for just this kind of conversation, as more than 1,000 people registered for the event, from all over the UK and also from Europe, making it probably the biggest on-line debate of the pandemic.

Speaking as a Charedi Jew, Yehudis Fletcher declared: “I never opted out of being part of the Jewish community, and I don’t like the framing of ‘mainstream Jewish community versus the Charedi community’. I think these are artificial differences, and as a persecuted minority I think we should learn to get along with each other”.

For Baddiel, “religion is not just an irrelevance but a red herring. For non-Jews, when they think about antisemitism, think it’s about religious intolerance and thus downgrade it as being less important than racism. Neo-Nazis don’t ask if you keep kosher before they set light to your house — that’s why it’s racism”. But even Baddiel admitted that as an atheist he still took part in a Passover Seder — though he insisted it was more to do with remembering what he had done as a child than “anything to do with God”.

As someone who has spent much of his career disparaging religion, he said he would include Orthodox Judaism in that category. “I read about [Stamford Hill] and I thought this was a religious sect within my community indulging in practices which led to the spread of Covid-19…. partly because they pay no attention to lockdown laws”. He should, he said, be free to criticise such behaviour — “‘Jews Don’t Count’ doesn’t mean Jews never criticise each other”. He had specifically used the word “frummers”, he claimed, to signal that he was a Jewish person criticising other Jews.

Yehudis Fletcher dismissed concerns that criticism such as Baddiel’s might increase antisemitism. “We’re not responsible for other people’s bigotry. Bigots are responsible for bigotry. But we absolutely should and must be able to examine our own behaviour, we must be accountable not only to the state but also to a free press. I have a problem with the framing of an entire community as one. There is no religious obligation to flout Covid laws. There are certain issues within part of the Charedi community — which is not homogeneous — that encourages certain behaviour. But there is nobody coming from a Jewish values perspective who is saying, we need to break the law. There are all sorts of reasons, ranging from the way people live, the way people’s lives have been conducted until now… we have had huge numbers of deaths”.

She said she thought of Jews as an “outer class” within the outside world, and Charedim as an “outer class within Jewish society as well.” In the same way as Jews were “othered” within wider society, she said, Charedi Jews were “othered within Jewish society”. She pointed to huge problems such as poor secular education, poverty, and very large families — although she later praised unknown elements of Charedi society such as unacknowledged entrepreneurship, despite such issues.

Baddiel backtracked slightly: “It seemed like I was saying that everyone that lives in that [Charedi] community is an idiot, and that is unfair, I hold my hands up. But I am talking about the practices within that community”.

He said he had been contacted by NHS England with regard to a potential video aimed at encouraging Charedi Jews to accept anti-Covid vaccines — a similar one has been made by Adil Ray and Meera Syal for their own community. “NHS England told me that more than any other community, strictly Orthodox Jews won’t listen. I said, well, they won’t listen to me. You [Yehudis] are right, stupid effing frummers was wrong, and I apologise for that. But I stand by the idea that this disease kills people, its spread needs to be contained as much as possible, and practices go on through that community that continue that — and that is really stupid”.

Both participants spoke about their education — Baddiel attended North-West London Jewish Day School, an Orthodox primary school, followed by Haberdashers’ Aske’s and Cambridge University, while Fletcher is currently studying at Salford University — though she admitted that at 33, with three young children, she was “on the back foot” with her secular contemporaries.

And they spoke about the concept of free will and how it operates in the strictly Orthodox community. “For some people, [an unravelling of the rabbinical strictures] would bring joy to their Judaism”, Fletcher said, adding, wryly, “for others it would mean bacon sandwiches on Yom Kippur morning”. There were, she observed, “definitely people who are traumatised by extreme religious observance”.

For herself, she said, “I’m not threatening to leave Charedi Judaism. I’m threatening to stay.” And asked by Baddiel how anything would change, Fletcher had one answer: “Education, education, education”.

  • 26 March, 2021