A Belz Hasidic community in North London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood is facing a torrent of criticism because of their declaration that women should not be allowed to drive. Last week, The Jewish Chronicle uncovered a letter written in Hebrew that was sent around the community, expressing that female drivers are “something that goes against the laws of modesty within our society, and against the laws of suitable behaviour for parents of our Chasidic institutions.”
The letter was addressed from “The spiritual management of Belz Institutions, London” and, according to The Jewish Chronicle, was endorsed by “leaders of Belz educational institutions,” including rabbis. It was composed because of an “increase in incidences of mothers of our students who have begun driving cars,” and threatened that from “Rosh Chodesh Elul 5775” (August), in accordance with a decision made by the leader of the Belz—a Ukrainian Hasidic sect that began in the early 19th century—any child driven by his or her mother to school will have to find education elsewhere:
We asked the holy one, our teacher The Admor, Shlita, and his answer was thus: To have an amendment that if a woman is driving a car, she cannot send her children to be educated in Belz institutions.
The news was met with strong condemnation, both by the UK government and the wider Jewish Orthodox community. According to The Guardian, education secretary Nicky Morgan has launched an investigation into the Belz community saying that the letter’s announcement was “completely unacceptable in modern Britain.”
And Dina Brawer, UK Ambassador for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told The Independent that the letter’s threat has no scriptural basis, and that the development “is part of a bigger conversation about extremism.” She goes on to say: “I don’t see any difference between this and the ban on driving in Saudi Arabia. It fetishes women by saying ‘we can’t see women and we can’t look at women’ and I think that is completely against Jewish values and the Bible’s values.”
Despite the scathing response, The Jewish Chronicle reports that a local Belz women’s association called “Neshei Belz” released a statement proclaiming that they feel “extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”
The Guardian also reports that one Belz mother in Stamford Hill expressed that she was happy with the new rule. She said, “family purity is exceptionally important to us. There’s no bigger priority for us than raising a pure Jewish family.”
The leaders of the Belz community have since responded to Nicky Morgan apologizing for their letter’s “unfortunate” choice of words, but stand by its content in defense of “religious principles and strong traditional values.”
But in an op-ed for The Guardian, Naomi Alderman argues that just because the women of the Belz community approve of the new driving ban, it doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable.
…it doesn’t surprise me in the least that the women of Belz have issued a statement themselves. They support the driving ban. They “feel extremely valued belonging to a community where the highest standards of refinement morality and dignity are respected.” Well, sure. The idea that misogynist oppression is done by men to women is incredibly simplistic. Women can be just as sexist as men, both in the Orthodox Jewish world and everywhere else. Self-oppression is the most insidious form of tyranny and the hardest to root out.
Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.