Jewish schools must act to prevent sexual assault

'After last week’s allegations of sexual assault at the University of St Andrews, we can no longer claim the problem is not ours'

July 23, 2020 11:11

Earlier this month a group of Scottish Jews, hosted by the Edinburgh Jewish Cultural Centre, came together on Zoom to hear a talk about Jewish perspectives on acknowledging, discrediting, and reducing, sexual harassment and assault within the Jewish community.   Participants could not have known how prescient their conversation would turn out to be: just a few days later, reports emerged that a Jewish fraternity house at the University of St Andrews was at the centre of dozens of student allegations of rape and sexual assault. 

Jews, like many people of faith, have historically been reluctant to acknowledge the levels of sexual violence perpetrated, and experienced, within the Jewish community.  It is still not uncommon to hear the view that, somehow, the Jewish community is different and ‘better’ and less affected by sexual violence because of adherence to Jewish values.  Nevertheless, recognition is slowly growing that sexual violence is no respecter of religious affiliation or practice. 

A number of UK Jewish charities, including Migdal Emunah and Jewish Women’s Aid, offer support to those who have experienced child sexual abuse, sexual violence, and domestic abuse.  A programme of safeguarding training has been rolled out across Jewish organisations engaged in youth work.  And, last year, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council supported the JWA in launching a scheme to combat sexual harassment in Jewish workplaces.

This is significant progress.  However, there are other groups experiencing sexual violence not yet sufficiently well recognised within the Jewish community.  One of those groups is university students.

The evidence is damning.  In 2018, a survey found that 62% of students in the UK had experienced sexual violence of some kind, and 8% of female respondents said they had been raped while at university.  New students are particularly vulnerable.  In 2012, a study carried out jointly by the University of Sussex and the National Union of Students found that, for new undergraduates, not only is their first year at college a time in their lives marked by increased sexual experimentation, but it is also the year when they are most likely to experience sexual harassment, coercion and assault. 

After last week’s disclosures at the University of St Andrews, we can no longer claim the problem is not ours.  We have a chiyyuv (religious obligation) to work to prevent future perpetration of sexual assault.  And one of the most effective ways to do that is to provide comprehensive, meaningful, Jewishly-underpinned, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in secondary schools.

Over a decade ago, Dr Yocheved Dubow created a sex, relationships and health education curriculum for Orthodox schools in America.  Her key insight was that it was not only possible, but also critical, to take internationally accepted guidelines for sexuality education and integrate them within a halachically-based theoretical framework.  British Jewry must now take up this challenge - and that includes our most Orthodox schools.  Without open and inclusive RSE that is presented through a halachic lens, young people will assume that Jewish values about sex are non-existent, overly restrictive, or even damaging, when nothing could be further from the truth.

A number of Orthodox schools have, until now, avoided teaching RSE in any comprehensive way.  Some give this a positive spin: citing parental choice, they claim families prefer to provide such education at home, at a time and in a way that is appropriate for each child.   Publicly at least, they also maintain the fiction that, since sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage, none of their pupils will be experimenting sexually.  But this wholesale erasure of pre-marital sexuality deprives pupils from Torah-observant families who are engaging (or thinking of engaging) in early sexual relationships of a safe place to ask questions and get answers from trusted adults with the right values. 

To those who argue that sexuality and intimacy are not subjects for a classroom setting, Dubow is clear:  “While tzni’ut (modest appearance and behaviour) is a core value and certainly applies to our topics, we must recognise that … thwarting sexuality education in our schools will not advance the cause of tzni’ut, but will succeed in promoting general culture and its anti-tzni’ut stance as young people’s sole source of sexual values. … Leaving this content area out of our educational goals and day school curriculum is a statement that either the Torah has no opinion on the topic, or that we are afraid to present it.”  

Some parents may express concern that explicit discussion of intimate relationships will lead to higher levels of sexual experimentation.  In fact, research shows the opposite is true: RSE does not increase uptake of sexual activity, and in some cases actually reduces it.  This is because, when taught well, RSE acts protectively.  If children are consistently taught about bodily autonomy and the importance of touch that is wanted and appropriate, then as young adults they will feel more able to resist pressure to engage in unwanted sexual activity.  Thus, through development of personal agency, RSE becomes an informal safeguarding mechanism.  

RSE in an explicitly Jewish context can also improve the efficacy of safeguarding.  For those who experience sexual violence, schools can help by removing the stigma of shame, and replacing it with a focus on perpetrators and wanting to stop further desecration.  For pupils who are Torah-observant and less likely to have intimate relationships before marriage, such a curriculum is equally important.  We must end the pretence that all outwardly Torah-observant marriages are safe ones: lessons incorporating Jewish sources on consent and bodily autonomy will help those who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship once they are married.  To be clear: whatever a pupils’ level of religious practice, Jewish schools must use a Jewish framework of values to communicate that sexual violence is halachically never permitted, never acceptable, and never their fault. 

Chief Rabbi Mirvis has rightly expressed his concern that a lack of support for young Jews conflicted about matters of sexuality may cause them to experience a loss of faith, or to leave Judaism behind altogether.  It is already well documented that many formerly Strictly Orthodox Jews left their homes at least in part because they were subjected to sexual abuse.  Therefore, schools that explicitly use Jewish texts to condemn abuse and assault, and to reassure victims that they are not to blame, will help to prevent young people from abandoning their faith because they think that Judaism no longer cares about them.

How should RSE best be taken forward in Jewish schools?  A commitment to following the Government’s new guidance on relationships education, due to come into effect next year, will be an excellent start.  All children should be able to name all body parts – not euphemisms, but English language anatomical names.  They should be able to articulate the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship: an absence of explicit teaching to exemplify healthy relationships directly enables abuse and coercion, since otherwise a person cannot recognise when a relationship is distorted or harmful.  Children must also be told that inappropriate touch is never the fault or responsibility of the victim; and they should be given information about responsible organisations – Jewish charities, statutory services – where they can go for further support and advice should they need it.

However, a curriculum truly embedded in halachic values will go further.  Ideally, pupils will learn to use Jewish values as a basis for making ethical sexual decisions; and this Jewish foundation for exploring relationships will be further supported by embedding it within a human rights framework.  Using the resultant integrated value system, pupils can then be supported in working through a range of scenarios to help them clarify their own values.  By learning to reflect on and negotiate their own boundaries, they will in turn understand the importance of respecting the boundaries of others. 

A curriculum underpinned by the Jewish values of ahavat Yisrael (showing love towards all other Jews), and of kavod habriyot (respecting the innate dignity of all human beings as God’s creations), will use content and approaches that are inclusive, rather than privileging male perspectives and opposite-sex long-term relationships.  This is not to say that Jewish schools cannot teach a more traditional/religious perspective as well; indeed, under the new Government guidance, schools are explicitly permitted to teach the faith position of their community.  Nevertheless, while the incorporation of casual relationships and same-sex relationships may be uncomfortable for some teachers and parents, it is imperative that this is not used as an excuse to avoid protecting all our young people from potential harm. 

The biblical injunction loh ta’amod al dam re’echah (do not stand by while your neighbour’s blood is shed) will be used to teach the Jewish obligation not to be a bystander.  In the context of RSE, this means it is not enough simply not to be a perpetrator of sexual assault: rather, every young person must play their part in keeping others safe.  Publicly challenging sexism and sexual harassment at the point where they happen is known to have an enormous protective impact; but social norms can make it awkward to criticise a friend in front of peers.  Thus, explicit practice in school will help pupils to develop confidence in speaking out, thereby directly reducing the risk of harmful behaviour.

A faith-based curriculum will incorporate traditional Jewish texts as well as Jewish values.  Biblical narratives (Abraham and Hagar/Sarah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Boaz and Ruth) are an obvious starting point for discussions about what good and bad relationships look like, and about how difficult it can be to resist the social pressures that encourage poor decision-making. In addition, however, pupils will benefit from learning key texts that codify rabbinic thought on respectful and consensual relationships. 

For example, the Talmud makes it clear (in tractate Eruvin) that forced sex is forbidden even if the intention is to perform a mitzvah; and the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah adds that men must not engage in sexual relations if they are feeling angry or are drunk, or if their partner is afraid.  In addition, sharing relevant contemporary responsa may be reassuring for some pupils, as it will help them to see that there is a mechanism for keeping halachah up-to-date and relevant. 

Through the creation of an ambitious new framework that incorporates Government guidance, halachah, and human rights, Jewish schools can support pupils in making responsible, halachically grounded, relationship choices.  Incorporating violence prevention messages and bystander training will enable pupils to recognise and resist unhealthy relationships, and will thus directly contribute towards reduced levels of sexual assault, including sexual violence within marriage. 

It will not be an easy undertaking.  Nevertheless, as Chief Rabbi Mirvis concluded in his Guide for Orthodox Schools, “as challenging as the task might be, and it is exceptionally challenging, failure to address it at all amounts to an abrogation of our responsibility to the Almighty and to our children.”

Sarah Bronzite is a teacher and researcher. 

July 23, 2020 11:11

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