Monday, 9 January 2012

Does school row expose 'Charedi coup'?

The first Hackney Gazette of 2012 features a letter and a news story both of which raise concerns about schools for ultra orthodox Jewish (Charedi) children which have opened illegally in and around Stamford Hill.

Some of these schools have been granted retrospective planning permission but usually with conditions attached.

A Google search suggests at least three similar cases (any more please let me know and I will amend if there are any updates.)

Torah V'Yirah, 91 Amhurst Park.

Beis Trana, at 186-194 Upper Clapton Road. (Both discussed in a Jewish Chronicle piece )

The Gur school in Fairholt Road (Another Jewish chronice piece).

The Gazette's news story covered the Gur school which got its planning permission in July but with conditions that it has failed to meet. The Gazette said: "The council has since served several enforcement notices which have been ignored."

The school has now appealed against the conditions of the temporary planning permission.

The letter in the Gazette is about another school, the Torah V'Yirah at 91 Amhurst Road (The Gazette originally wrote this story on December 16). On Tuesday 10 January the Council's planning committee will vote on whether this school should be granted retrospective planning permission too.

Council officers have recommended refusing permission and under normal circumstances this matter would not have gone before a committee. But a petition of 10 councillors has forced it on to the agenda on Tuesday.

Two councillors who sit on the committee (Ian Sharer, Leader of Hackney Lib Dems and Michael Levy, Leader of the Conservative Group) ) have put their names to the petition calling for the schools argument to be heard and not refused on the basis of the officer recommendation.

Nigel Lewis' letter to the Gazette also referred to a meeting with Hackney Councillors in June 2011 - this included Abraham Jacobson (Lib Dem), Ian Sharer (Leader of Hackney Lib Dems), Simche Steinberger (Conservative), Michael Levy (Leader of the Conservative Group) and Benzion Papier (Conservative) as well as Linda Kelly (Conservative) and Dawood Akhoon (Lib Dem) who have all signed the petition.

Lewis' letter described the June meeting as "a Charedi-run closed shop determined to stifle local democracy".

He added that: "The recent petition likewise appears to be the prelude to an intended coup, in which large areas of Hackney's planning will henceforth be managed with Charedi interests uppermost, irrespective of other people."

This may sound a bit insensitive but tensions around planning and  the Charedi community have dogged Hackney politics for years. During the last Mayoral election Andrew Boff, Conservative member of the London Assembly and candidate for Mayor of Hackney, criticised this blog for suggesting that the Conservative party sometimes behaved like an ultra orthodox Jewish lobby group in Hackney: Reply to Andrew Boff.

A couple of years ago Mayor Jules Pipe criticised Cllr Simche Steinberger for putting the interests of the Charedi community ahead of other Hackney residents.

This is how he described it later in an interview with Blood and Property: "I believe that it was the adopted principle of the entire Hackney Conservative group to oppose the Council’s clarification of planning policy regarding residential extensions. In my opinion, in attempting to negotiate the removal of the item from the Cabinet agenda in return for his acquiescence to allowing an urgent item that lowered council housing rents, he put furthering his group’s political position above operating correctly as Chair of Overview and Scrutiny."

The other side

The debate about ultra orthodox Jewish education facilities has been rumbling for a while in Hackney and the Council has been criticised for not acknowledging the problems faced by its fastest growing community.

Rabbi Abraham (Avraham) Pinter, a regular spokesman for the community and principal at Yesodey Hatorah School led a campaign to turn the site of an old Hackney School into a school for ultra orthodox Jewish pupils rather than turn it into residential homes.

At the time he told the Jewish Chronicle that the site represented "a unique opportunity for the Charedi community in Stamford Hill to have improved purpose-built educational facilities. More than 20 per cent of Hackney's under-16s come from the Charedi community and many of our existing schools are old fashioned, sub-standard residential buildings.

He said: "It is an absolute scandal that the educational needs of the fastest growing part of Britain's Jewish community are being ignored by Hackney Council," he claimed. In other words something needs to be done about schools in the community and until then illegal ones will probably keep popping up.

General tension

The ultra orthodox Jewish community seems to have a rocky record in terms of community cohesion. It is often criticised by the mainstream Jewish media here. Between Christmas and New Year the BBC reported stand-offs in Israel as the wider Israeli population protested against demands for gender segregation.

At the end of last year Geoffrey Alderman, historian and columnist for the Jewish Chronicle, raised tensions when he claimed it was "well known that charedi men are notorious harassers of the opposite sex." (Republishing this comment has offended a reader - see comment below - but the context and a response from Rabbi Pinter are included in the link, I'm hoping that's enough to justify repeating Alderman's claim which is not there because I believe it but to demonstrate that this debate has become very heated within the Jewish community itself. Anyway, if you have a problem with this please let me know via comments below.)

Justified or not, is there any way to usefully address these issues before the effects of a poorly performing economy fray tolerance levels?


  1. Good article. Depending on the interest from the general public I may respond in detail later
    Cllr Abraham Jacobson
    P.S. It seems like I am now being labelled by some as a Charedi! Interesting.....

  2. Great, thanks for the comment. I'm just back from the planning committee meeting where members voted unanimously against the application and I'll try and write something up soon.

    It would be good to get some kind of debate going - Graham Loveland assistant director of planning said efforts were being made on this front.

    But on the issue of how to 'label' you though, I know we've discussed this before (and I notice I failed to change a piece back in 2010 - but if you had to be labelled, what would you say your label would be?

  3. Whilst I do not wish to stifle an important debate on this difficult topic of balancing the needs of one community over another in its midst and the strife that manifests itself as a consequence, I am sorry, but by quoting Alderman's original baseless harassment allegation which he has significantly mitigated here on this blog, I believe that your penultimate paragraph constitutes nothing less than hate speech.

  4. It's hard to know what is acceptable and what isn't. I think most people who read this blog know that this claim was made.

    I don't think there's much point in hiding how heated this can get - but if people over step the mark what is the sensible reaction?

    But I take your point and will add some context.

  5. No one likes to be labelled! but on my twitter site it says I am an ex Geordie who says things as they are! With regards to my religion I am Jewish some say (those who dont know me!) I am ultra orthodox whilstt others call me other things which I wont repeat! what I do wish to be known as someone who cares about everyone and will speak out against any injustice even if it means that on occasion I will also have to yes STICK UP for the Jewish community against exaggerated criticism.

    As a recently elected Cllr i am proud to say that I have represented people irrespective ot thei race, religion, colour, creed or orientation but unfortunately you cat please everyone.
    Getting back to the planning issue i dont mind meeting you email me on

  6. I'll definitely be in touch soon but I want to write up last night's meeting first - there did appear to be some criticism of the Charedi community and hopefully you'll provide a response.

    And thanks for having a go at the label issue - although I'm still not 100% clear. You say you are not ultra orthodox and you stick up for the Jewish community, but as far as I can tell the most ardent critics of the Charedi community come from within the wider Jewish community. When it comes to those disputes do you find yourself more closely aligned with Charedi than the non Charedi interests? I'm not trying to have the last word here so if you can be bothered to reply again I'll leave the subject alone.

  7. I have always understood that when an application is controversial Council officers are expected to refer it to the Planning Committee and not decide to refuse it using their delegated powers. One can imagine the uproar if applications by faith groups were rejected with no democratic process. So I support those Councillors of all parties who, at the risk of being labelled Jewish conspirators, petitioned for the Torah V'Yirah application to be debated in public at Committee.

  8. Unfortunately though there was no one there to support the application so there was no debate apart from a few questions from Cllr Stops.

  9. >I don't think there's much point in hiding how heated this can get - but if people over step the mark what is the sensible reaction?

    I am not sure what it is exactly you are saying here and how it applies to Alderman's claim which he himself has redefined to render meaningless.

    Your exchange here with Jacobson is rather interesting. Why, do you always put people into neat categorised boxes in this way?

    When the JC itself when it stood up for charedim in the Patterson saga, did they then become partly charedi? And how about Simon Weisenthal Centre who did the same?

    Sometimes, just sometimes, people are motivated by justice and injustice rather than by tribal affiliation.

  10. But how do members of a community know whether their representatives are "motivated by justice and injustice rather by tribal affiliation"? Should they feel uncomfortable for asking what their tribal affiliation might be - and whether they are motivated by it?

    I don't know if anyone should feel compelled to answer those questions - Diane Abbott or Meg Hillier wouldn't tell me what their religious beliefs were - but should I feel guilty for asking them?

    On the Alderman issue - I agree that he redefines his point. The reason I use the original phrase is because it caused offence and it's hard to demonstrate how heated things are without showing something heated.

    I'm not keen to remove it because it is what he wrote (as you pointed out in a comment under the original article - although you didn't seem too convinced about his redefinition).

    And that's why it's there, to illustrate what kind of thing can be said. At the same time I had hoped it was clear that this was an extreme view - may be I should make it clearer that he seemed to backtrack.

    Or do you just find this comment so offensive - whatever context it is placed in - that you don't want to read it?

    Or do you think, even when it is put in context, it might incite hatred?

    I honestly appreciate the scrutiny, I'm no expert on how to deal with this stuff and it would be pointless to fall out over presentation, so let me know what you think.

  11. >Should they feel uncomfortable for asking what their tribal affiliation might be - and whether they are motivated by it?

    No of course not. But after Jacobson made it clear that he does not consider himself Charedi, you then seem to imply that he might be more Charedi than he lets on because "the most ardent critics of the Charedi community come from within the wider Jewish community" and because he is seemingly not critical enough of them.

    As for Alderman, he appears to harbour an innate old school hatred for charedim. A large proportion of his weekly diatribes in the JC are pointed at charedim. He made another wild statement just the other week, that “the concept of punctuality is quite alien to the Charedi world”. I think that to stereo type any group of people is wrong, always.

    Alderman’s original statement as it was issued, (and as I believe it was intended given its context) however is dangerous. It is the type of material normally present on “Stormfront”, rather than within a mainstream press article.

    I think it so off the scale in terms of its outrageousness that it to me hardly seems like the case in point example you seek.

    Using such a despicable statement to show that Charedim have a “community cohesion” problem is a bitlike suggesting that medieval blood libel victims had a community cohesion problem.

    Whether or not Alderman is guilty of hate speech is something I sincerely hope a jury will decide.

  12. Simon, thanks again for the comments and sorry for the delay in replying.

    I'd be interested in your views on Rabbi Elyashiv who seems to think that Charedi men should publicly humiliate women who don't behave in line with Charedi expectations.

    I have to confess it's not an area I'm an expert in and I hope you can explain why I shouldn't see this as an official sanctioning of the harassment of women.

    I was pointed toward this piece entitled "Insult, embarrass, harass 'uppity' women" - what do you make of it?

  13. Alderman's article concerns itself with sexual harassment. His statement is that Charedi men, are without qualification, guilty of such harassment. In this context he refers to an incident on a plane for example, where serious sexual misconduct was reported. Here, on your blog, he says "yet this sort of thing still goes on" and so on.

    However since you ask, despite its irrelevance here, Elyashiv apparently and strangely condones verbal abuse (not quite sexual harassment in my book) in one particular case. Elyashiv's so called edict applies equally authorises verbal abuse directed at offending men as it does to offending women.

    However the fact of the matter is that very few Charedi men actually feel compelled to harass secular citizens and far less so women, even when those others offend Charedi sensitivities.

    The Charedi world is not a single homogeneous entity spearheaded by a few identifiable leaders. It is far more complex and diverse than that. Few Charedim in Hackney consider Elyashiv as their leader. A great many would in fact consider him to be of little importance at all. And in Israel, a best selling Charedi magazine has reportedly been banned by Elyashiv. It is still doing exceedingly well, as are numerous banned websites.

  14. Thanks for this explanation. You've kept it short but there is a lot here to digest.

    In a few minutes I hope to have posted a statement made by Councillor Ned Mulready at the planning meeting on Tuesday. It should illustrate the kinds of concerns people outside the Charedi community have around planning issues

    I think your last comment will be relevant and I hope you'll have something to say about Cllr Mulready's statement when it appears.

    For me the crossover with the Elyashiv case is what happens when the view of a leader/sage contradicts the law of the land the community lives in?

    While figures like Elyashiv may not be a universally accepted I'm assuming that each part of the Charedi community has their own version of someone whose views override the laws of the land.

    Is that what's going on with the planning disputes with Hackney Council - that schools will be set up without planning permission until the community's leaders tell them not to? It won't be when the council tells them not to?

    Hopefully we can take this discussion down that route next - I'm sure you'll have a view on Cllr Mulready's statement but to me it looks as good a place to start as any other... Hopefully hear from you soon.

  15. And just in case I've given the impression that I know about this stuff, the Rabbi Elyashiv story was pointed out to me by Geoffrey Alderman.

  16. No, the silent majority are unaffiliated and are not lead by any individual leader. Jewish law dictates adherence to the laws of the land. No religious leader can override that. The ongoing disputes between Hackney and its Jewish community have arisen out of dire need.
    Many Charedim feel that Hackney council and its serving officers are carrying out a vendetta against them. They prefer to have these issues dealt with by officers who have no affiliation with Hackney council when these matters are referred higher up to external bodies.
    When in fact these matters are indeed referred elsewhere, they are quite often successful in gaining authorisation for their retrospective applications. Perhaps Hackney council is fact carrying out a vendetta against the OJ community, perhaps it is not, I do not know.
    Haringey for example, has a good working relationship with its OJ community. Is it a coincidence that the OJ community there are represented by Labour politicians instead of being almost solely responsible for the democratically elected opposition? Is that what motivates people like Cllr Mulready?

  17. May I point out that the Jewish precept "the law of the land is the law" only applies to financial transactions - and that although it is commonly extended to other matters, strictly speaking it does not so extend? May I also point out that Rabbi Elyashiv is very widely regarded in the ultra-orthodox world as the ultimate living expositor of halacha - Jewish law? It was - after all - a P'sach Halacha [religious ruling] by him and the late communal rabbi of Gateshead (Rabbi Rakow) that practically forced Jonathan Sacks to rewrite sections of his book "Dignity of Difference."

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  19. It applies to tax matters and to land and property matters. It unquestionably does apply to various aspects connected to the planning disputes in Hackney in which context it was used. According to the renowned posek the Aruch Hashulchan (1829 – 1903), it applies broadly and it is not limited to tax, land and property matters.

    Eliyashiv's wiki states "At the age of 101, Elyashiv is active and remains the paramount leader of both Israel and the Diaspora Lithuanian-Haredi community, and many Ashkenazi Jews regard him as the posek ha-dor, the contemporary leading authority on halakha, or Jewish law".

    All that is true. However the largest Charedi groups by far are the Hasidic groups, who consider Elyahsiv of little importance. Their members have never heard of Rakow, barely of Sacks and certainly not of Ehrentreu. Then you have a larger group still, the silent majority who are unaffiliated who patronise those websites banned by Elyashiv and who still buy those papers he has also banned.

    Concern yourself with the revision of history rather than with the revision of Halacha and Charedi sociology neither of which appear to be your strong points.

    Elyashiv's confined statement was that "having looked into the details of this case" there was no need for the perpetrator to apologise, and I think he is very wrong for saying so. That perpetrator must apologise for causing offense as must you Mr Alderman.

    Can't you rise above old and hateful tribalistic prejudices? Are all of us perverts? Do all charedim the world over have no concept of punctuality?

    Until you withdraw your horrific statements, and apologise for what you have said, you lack all credibility in taking anyone else to task for the misdemeanours you perceive them to commit.

  20. If the precept "The Law of the Land is the Law" applies to planning disputes why are some charedi schools in Hackney apparently permitting themselves to operate in contravention of the law?