It’s one thing for religious fundamentalist leaders – whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian – to preach that limiting the freedom and independence of women is acceptable in the name of preserving traditional values, and for women in their communities to voluntarily submit to such restrictions.
But putting such limitations on women in writing and turning them into official institutional policy in a modern Western democracy is a completely different kettle of fish.
That’s what members of the ultra-Orthodox Belz sect in London learned the hard way over the past week, after a letter they sent out forbidding students whose mothers drive to attend their schools was made public, throwing them under the glare of the international media spotlight and condemnations and under the scrutiny of their national government.
Formally banning women from driving hit a collective nerve in Great Britain. The Guardian’s Laura Barton called the news “strange and unsettling,” writing: “What was shocking about the Stamford Hill case was its proximity – the idea that, within our realm, women should be prohibited from driving. After all, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.”
The dictate didn’t come from Saudi Arabia, but it did, in fact, come from the East – the letter came as a result of the marching orders of the Belzer rebbe in Jerusalem, Yissachar Dov Rokeach. His directives were cited as being behind the new policy that would be imposed at the British Belz schools in August and spelled out in the letter: All children who were driven to school by mothers would not be admitted through its doors, because female driving violates “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp.”
It seems improbable to today’s minivan mothers that driving one’s children to school could be viewed as an immodest activity: What’s more constricting and isolating than being stuck in traffic in a vehicle full of rambunctious children? But apparently, in the Belz circles, getting behind the wheel represents power and control, which endangers the status quo – better to have their women pushing strollers, ushering their multiple offspring through busy city streets and on public transportation than having them all safely strapped in their car seats.
When transporting large families to and fro, however, it’s pretty clear which method would be far more attractive. And therefore, it must be proving hard to fight. The fact that such a policy – and such a punishment – had to be formally imposed in the Belz community indicates that social pressure had not worked to deter women from getting behind the wheel of their own free will. And that is precisely the issue – their free will.
Western countries have proven able to tolerate even extreme practices by a multitude of religions in their midst as long as it is convinced that all participants are doing so willingly and no physical harm is done. But there’s a fine line between voluntary religious observance and autocratic denial of human rights – and in this case, the line was crossed.
That is why the story was splashed across the press and why it was impossible for British leaders to stay silent on the issues. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said banning women drivers was “unacceptable” and other Jewish leaders denounced it. The country’s Equality and Human Rights Commission said that “this sort of discrimination has no place in our society.” The U.K. education secretary and minister for women and equality, Nicky Morgan, called the rule “completely unacceptable in modern Britain,” adding that “if schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent school standards.” She said that “where we are made aware of such breaches we will investigate and take any necessary action to address the situation.”
Faced with these threats of government sanctions, the Belz got defensive – though not enough to say they were reversing their policy. In a letter sent to Morgan, the principal of the school, Ahron Klein, said his community was “distressed and saddened” by the controversy and that “we accept that the choice of words” in the letter “was unfortunate and if a negative impression was created by our letter than we unreservedly apologise for that.”
What he refused to apologize for, notably, was the policy itself, instead justifying it as representing “deeply held beliefs” and “time-hallowed traditions” that are “guided by the Torah and the teaching of the rebbes of Belz. We do not impose these guidelines on anyone who has not chosen to adhere to the mores of our community of his or her own free will.”
Unless, of course, they want to send their children to his school.
Surely, the Belzer rebbe and his minions back at headquarters in Israel, whether or not they are indeed “distressed and saddened” by what has happened in England, surely had no clue how badly this directive would boomerang when put into writing. It isn’t used to being under such attack. In Israel, government and religion are hopelessly intertwined, and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sects are so politically powerful that policies which link children’s education with their mother’s personal behavior are greeted with little more than a shrug. There are numerous schools in Israel – including those that receive public funding – where children cannot attend if their mother is spotted wearing skirts and sleeves that are too short, or, heaven forfend – jeans – or refusing to cover her hair, not to mention still stricter ones where parental possession of an iPhone or a television can be grounds for expulsion. The only time that any kind of a public outcry has occurs is when their policies smack of racism.
Some will likely cry anti-Semitism over the extreme media and government reaction to the driving ban. Others will chalk it up to the same kind of European political “militant secularism” behind the banning of religious garb and dress like hijab and yarmulkes in schools and other public settings.
But it can also be seen as a refreshing reality check for sects that are enabled and coddled in Israel when it comes to practices that do damage to values they claim to hold so dear – respecting and protecting the dignity of women.