Thursday, 19 January 2012

Joe Lobenstein and sinister motives

A letter from former four-times Hackney Mayor Joe Lobenstein MBE is in the latest Hackney Gazette. In it he said he detected a "sinister motive" in  Nigel Lewis's letter about Charedi Schools in Stamford Hill.

Whatever that sinister motive may have been, Lobenstein never pinned it down.

Instead, after listing Lewis' complaints about a Charedi "closed-shop" and "coup" Lobenstein justified his attack on Lewis with one point, that Charedi kids don't commit crime.

He said that a look at the figures would show "that not a single pupil of Charedi schools in Hackney has ever appeared before a juvenile court or has been accused of any vices which are unfortunately so rampant in society today."

By complete coincidence, just yesterday I was in touch with former Hackney blogger Ben Locker who wrote a piece about this particular argument back in 2007. I'm posting his full blog post on a separate page for future reference.

Back in 2007 Locker wrote: "I was astonished by the argument one person put forward that Stamford Hill has a miniscule crime rate, thanks to the Orthodox Jewish community: even going so far as to say “when did you last hear of someone mugged by an Orthodox Jew?” Apart from the fact that it ignores a problem with unrecorded crime in the Haredi community, what on earth has that got to do with planning law?"

His astonishment was not shared by another Hackney blogger and member of the Charedi community "The Shaigetz" who said: "I, sadly, am less astonished. I have been hearing that justification, in its various forms, since I was twelve. Our superior children do not take drugs, wear ripped jeans or sport nose piercings, therefore we should be allowed to …[fill in the blank]."

(More recently Charedi youths were not immune to benefiting from the recent riots and The Shaigetz had interesting observations on the subject of unrecorded crime )

Lobenstein wrote a piece in the Jewish Tribune in which he criticised Geoffrey Alderman for being rude about Charedi schools in Stamford Hill: "Mr Alderman must have been dreaming when  he wrote that visiting the vicinities of Cranwich Road, Amhurst Park, Fairholt Road and Bethune Road, led him to believe that matters had turned ugly."

"Again, sheer and utter nonsense."

"I claim slightly superior knowledge over that of Alderman when describing Fairholt Road because I have lived there for approximately seventy years. The only school on Fairholt Road is St Thomas Abney School which belongs to the Church of England. No Jewish school is located in Fairholt Road."

Although he did mention "Planning application for the conversion of one local residence into a children's nursery is currently pending" I'm not sure if he was referring to Gur School at 85 Fairholt road which had already been running for more than six months with no planning permission.

In the same column - penned under the name Ben Yitzchok in the Jewish Tribune (May 2011 - pointed out to me by Geoffrey Alderman) - he also said: "Not a single school is operating without having obtained planning consent which invariably takes account of reaction of neighbours, traffic implications, health and safety regulations."

At the time the Gur school, in the road in which he lives, was operating without any of the above.

A couple of weeks ago the Hackney Gazette reported that the Gur school which got retrospective planning permission in July had failed to meet the conditions which came with it: "The council has since served several enforcement notices which have been ignored."


  1. Mr Lobenstein's letter does not seem intent on exploring Mr Lewis' prejudices, as you suggest, but on emphasising the positive contribution Charedim make to a peaceful and crime free Hackney.
    You also, below, quote Ben Locker. He believes a "one size fits all" planning policy is fair for all. If I am Christian and my house is too small I can move to a bigger house anywhere in England and I can be sure to find close by a church, a faith school, shops that meet my needs and a community & friends that share my culture. That's not true for Charedim. If I am Charedi I'd be isolated as a visible minority of, probably, one. The effect of "one size fits all" policies is to discriminate against me because of my religion. Can the policy be justified? "Yes", Planning Committee Councillor Mulready might say, "because you have chosen your religion, your kosher diet, your numbers of children, your eccentric dress." So I must conform to the majority culture or suffer the consequences? Personally I have no creed but I value diversity and tolerance and I think Mr Lobenstein is right to emphasise the positives in the current climate. None of us are without faults.

  2. You say: "I value diversity and tolerance".

    So before getting bogged down in the minutiae of loft extensions, illegal schools and planning law, may be we should discuss whether the values diversity and tolerance are recognised by the Charedi community?

    On January 14 the New York Times reported that the growing political and economic power of Ultra Orthodox community in Israel is causing problems - one facet being the erosion of women's rights.

    It's an alarming article for anyone who claims to "value diversity and tolerance" but also for anyone wondering what could be in store for Hackney.

    Is it unreasonable for people in Hackney to ask whether it could happen here, and whether some - or may be many - members of the Charedi community in Hackney want similar restrictions on women to be imposed here?

    There are signs that some in the Charedi community in Hackney expect the wider community to comply with their religious codes, like the banning of adverts on buses:

    But there appears to be no moral or religious comeback on those Charedim who disregard the culture and values of other communities – ie breaking planning laws.

    To many it looks like a one way street. Can you offer any evidence to counter these fears?

    May be you could show Joe Lobenstein the article above and find out if he would publicly condemn breaches of Hackney Council planning rules?

  3. Of course there is no denying that religious fundamentalism often manifests abhorrent views and conduct. The recent history of sectarianism in Northern Ireland is one example. All are subject to our laws which restrict behaviour which impinges on the freedoms of others. But it is unarguable that because some in a faith community exhibit views or behaviour eg chauvinism with which one disagrees then that community must forfeit the right to be treated equally under the law eg they are not entitled to have their planning applications heard in public or to exercise rights of appeal. Are they entitled to fewer rights than the numerous property developers in Hackney who disregard planning control for purely venal motives. If that were the case, where would it end?

  4. Raising an issue with the Advertising Agency seems a pretty reasonable step to take to me. Had that person defaced the offending advert, then I would concede your point. But making a complaint, that is an offended party's prerogative, surely? We all still have the right to be offended by what ever we deem offensive. Anyone who has a problem with that, is pretty intolerant I think.

    Whilst I find the "Our children do not take drugs, wear ripped jeans or sport nose piercings, therefore we should be allowed to …[fill in the blank]." argument repugnant, and part of a problem not its solution, let me introduce you to a similar argument, which in my view is more affective.

    This is a true story. It is one that happened less than two hours ago on Stamford hill High street, see @TfLTrafficNews.

    A non Jewish woman was knocked off her bike by a non-Jewish driver. A young Chasidic guy, a bystander called the Hatzolah. Hatzolah volunteers arrived within minutes, it's ambulance arrived soon after. They tended to this woman's injuries took a complete stranger, a woman, to hospital. Is this the community cohesion problem you speak of, manifesting itself again?

    Your instinct is perhaps to find something negative in the tale I tell, but what I take from it is hope.

  5. I can also attest to my admiration for the Hatzolah (a long standing volunteer first-aid scheme unique to the orthodox Jewish community). It has saved many lives. Another example might be Joe Lobenstein himself. I don't know how he would describe his religious beliefs but he is a prominent member of the Stamford Hill Jewish community and was elected and re-elected by his peers as Hackney's Mayor (before it was just a ceremonial office) for his work towards the common greater good.

  6. Thanks for the comments it's good to have a debate but I feel a bit out numbered! Simon, you might be right about my instinct to find negative elements but I'll do my best to hold off! But, oh no, I'm failing already... my excuse is that a debate must be balanced and address genuine fears. In my opinion you both under play the validity of fears held by people outside the Charedi community and overstate the validity of the fears it claims to have.

    Even if I don't entirely believe that your fears about a council vendetta are justified, I don't intend to criticise or deny the significance of that fear - and my offer to help you prove it still stands.

    But your insistence that only nice things can be said about the rapid growth of the Charedi community sounds like you are trying to sweep the concerns of other people under the carpet. Why not just answer them?

    When a population is growing at 4% per year some tension with the surrounding environment (unless it is growing into empty space) is inevitable. That tension would probably be there whether or not the Charedi community acted within the law on planning issues.

    But the many examples of Charedi building projects breaking the law heightens those tensions. Meanwhile figures of authority like Joe Lobenstein failing to condemn illegal building work or even accept that they are taking place looks irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

    There's a hearing on Tuesday about a synagogue in Bethune Road

  7. Apologies, that last post was a bit more tetchy sounding than I intended but hopefully not enough to put off discusion...

  8. You have stated repeatedly that the wider community fears OJ growth and have implied that usage of planning law as a tool to stymie OJ growth was justified. I am sorry, but that is not what planing law is there for.

    But you cannot at the same time you argue there is no agenda against the OJ community, whilst understanding as you do, that even if the OJ community kept to planning law we would still be causing tension.

    You talking of "balance" raises a smile here, it has to be said. For I do not believe that only good can be said of the OJ community, I have made that clear, just that not only bad can be said of it.

    I'll be gone though, don't wish to "outnumber" you...

  9. You did say you would ask why Council officer(s) sought to refuse the controversial Torah V'Yirah application using delegated powers. Perhaps you will publish any reply received and also this extract from the Council's constitution which states... "while many minor applications are dealt with by officers under delegated authority, major schemes and those raising substantial objections are determined by Planning Sub-Committee made up of elected Members." (Planning Code for Members). You might also explain why you described those petitioning as "forcing" the application onto the Committee agenda and why it was relevant for you to identify the petitioners as Jewish under a headline referring to a "Charedi coup". Perhaps that might provoke the debate which the Head of Planning is reported as wanting.

  10. You’re right I did.

    The council response was this:

    “Regarding 91 Amhurst Road, it was not put before committee as there is delegated authority for the refusal of a scheme of this size.”

    You offered this quote for consideration: "while many minor applications are dealt with by officers under delegated authority, major schemes and those raising substantial objections are determined by Planning Sub-Committee made up of elected Members." (Planning Code for Members).

    The council comment didn't address the issue of “substantial objections” which, in this case, might have put it on the agenda. But the objections mainly came from the side that wanted the application refused – which is why I assume it was deemed unnecessary to put it before the committee. May that isn't a fair explanation though.

    You also asked me to explain why I saw this petitioning as "forcing" the application onto the Committee agenda.

    The political system was used to change the agenda of a committee – the hands of officers were forced by politicians. I don’t see that as a negative thing – but it does suggest that some force was applied in order to effect a change.

    I’m assuming that the change in the committee agenda was desired by some person or organisation which could be said to have successfully mustered the force to effect the change.

    The motives could have been different for different parties. For example I spoke to Cllr Akehurst who signed the petition. He didn’t support it or even see it as a particularly important topic for discussion. His view was that those who proposed it were non-Labour councillors and their powers in the council are pretty limited. They needed his signature on the petition in order to exercise some of those limited powers and initiate a debate that they saw as important.

    He saw it as politically healthy to help them do that.

    Lastly you ask why it was relevant for me to identify the petitioners as Jewish – which you think I did under a headline referring to a "Charedi coup".

    The title of the piece was a question: Does school row expose “Charedi coup”?

    The concept of a “Charedi coup” came from a letter in the gazette. I don’t know if that concept is fair or not so hopefully, yes, there will be a debate. What you might be getting at – and what I think Joe Lobenstein meant by his ‘sinister motives’ claims – is that there is a danger in making these kinds of ethnic/religious group specific claims. Is that what you mean?

  11. The Council response seems inadequate - ie "if enough people object to a small scheme it can be refused without going to Committee".That interpretation doesn't offer much hope for applications by minority interests eg mosque, faith school etc does it?

    However the size of the scheme is just one of two tests for delegation under the Constitution - Hackney hasn't addressed the second. It seems Cllr Akehurst recognised this problem too.

    I feel your last four posts have provided a platform for largely negative, almost xenophobic, views of the OJ community and haven't done enough to explore the unique difficulties they face. With greater understanding perhaps there's more chance that tensions can be reduced and solutions found.

    The discussion has been thoughtful and (for me) educational but most people only read the posts themselves.

  12. I agree that the last posts on this issue have come from pretty negative starting points.

    I will try and address that.

    And I do appreciate the input from both you and Simon - by the way Simon the "out numbered" comment was meant to encourage people to join in, not to put you off.

    I think this medium and the time it allows for a bit of thought has been helpful. I try not to post anything when I'm wound-up about it, although that might not be obvious to people reading this.

    I hope that if I write anything that offends you you'll tell me about it - rather than stop talking - that's probably what you've been doing anyway.

    In the mean time I think I need to write an update on employment in Hackney which should be comfortingly dull compared to this - although of course it shouldn't be...