Hundreds of members of Stamford Hill’s Chasidic community have protested outside Parliament to warn they will leave Britain if the government goes ahead with plans to regulate yeshivot.
A crowd of 200 took to the streets in Westminster on Wednesday to voice dismay at measures contained in the new Schools Bill, reflecting mounting concern within Stamford Hill at the move by the secular authorities.
Chaim Sofer, one of the protesters, told the JC: “The Bill would not allow Jews to practise our law in our schools. If this law is passed, Jews will not be able to live here. I am a British patriot but we cannot accept this.”
Moshe Mayer Sterngold said the threat “reminds us of the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition”. The whole community “would leave”, he added.
Moshe Klein said: “If the law is like this with no concessions, we will leave the UK. I tell my wife and kids I hope it can change. This is a good country, we don’t want to leave.”
Another demonstrator, Rabbi David Weiss, said the proposals were “the same to what people did to us in the Dark Ages”.
The Union Flag was displayed and the national anthem played through a loudspeaker at the protest, which was organised by conservative radicals within Stamford Hill and not officially endorsed by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC).
One member of the UOHC rabbinate, Rabbi Shalom Friedman, took part, recalling how British yeshivot were founded by Holocaust survivors and Kindertransport refugees in the tradition of the great European institutions.
The audience included one of Stamford Hill’s best-known figures among the wider Jewish community, Rabbi Herschel Gluck, chairman of the local defence group, Shomrim. “We will continue educating our young as we have for many generations,” he said.
Demonstrator at Westminster rally against yeshivah regulation (Photo by Nigel Iskander)
Yeshivah head Rabbi Elyokim Schlesinger, a 100-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, told the protest: “Jews have always throughout history had self-sacrifices for the transmission of Jewish law. This has give our people a reason to survive.”
The Bill, he said, was “a contradiction to Britain’s history of tolerance and live and let live spirit”.
At one point what was believed to be Boris Johnson’s official car was spotted. Rabbi Gluck exclaimed: “Prime Minister, you are a friend of the Jews, please help us.”
Rabbi Asher Gratt, who has been at the forefront of the protest campaign, told the crowd: “The foundation of our education is based on teaching our children Jewish law…
“Thanks to our traditional education system our community is thriving.
Rabbi Elyokim Schlesinger (C), a 100-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, attended the protest to oppose some measures in the Schools Bill (Photo by Nigel Iskander)
“However, the schools bill threatens to dismantle the very fabric of our community. It is a threat to our way of life, our very survival as a distinct religious community.
“Please do not take away our religious freedom. Parents have fundamental rights to educate their children in their own way.”
The proposed legislation is the product of years of pressure from groups such as Hackney Council which estimates that up to 1,500 boys from 13 to 16 are currently being taught in unregulated yeshivot in the North London borough.
If passed, the Bill would force yeshivot to introduce secular lessons, teach relationships and sex education including talking about LGBT people, and undergo Ofsted inspections. The requirement to teach LGBT awareness has already proved the source of long-running tensions between registered Charedi schools and Ofsted.
The Bill is intended to close loopholes that have previously allowed yeshivot to escape state scrutiny because they are not classified as schools.
Protesters braved the heat on Wednesday to make their voices heard outside Parliament (Photo by Nigel Iskander)
Amendments due to be debated in the Lords this week seek to strengthen the legislation to prevent circumvention of the proposed new rules.
Stamford Hill leaders have set up a new committee to “support dialogue with decision-makers” about the Bill. One of its members, Rabbi Binyomin Stern, who is president of the UOHC, “We are pleased that this committee has been set up to communicate the needs of our community and wish them every hatzlochah [success].”
But it has yet to disclose whether it is willing to make concessions - or stands with those in the community who will brook no compromise.
The Department for Education said it had nothing to add to its position as set out in the Bill.
But one senior Jewish lawyer warned there were “flaws” in the proposed legal changes. “If they push the yeshivot, they will go underground. That won’t help the children and it wouldn’t achieve the purpose of the legislation.”
Yehudis Fletcher, co-founder of Jewish counter-extremism charity Nahamu, which has supported yeshivah regulation, said, “The protest was a call for Chasidic parents to be allowed to continue to deny their sons secular education.
“The denial of secular education has resulted in widespread illiteracy and innumeracy. We regard these reforms as essential to ensuring the continuing sustainability of Charedi communities.
“With high birth rates and significant dependency on uncertain state provision, the Charedi community needs the skills essential to access a wider range of careers and hence ensure a broad economic base, which will provide a firm and resilient footing for future growth.”
ANALYSIS BY SIMON ROCKER: There is a possible compromise - but will either side agree to it?