Manners, multiculturalism, and the battle of Stamford Hill
An 'Independent' columnist's attack on the alleged rudeness of the London suburb's Jewish residents has provoked a fevered debate. Was she right?
Jerome Taylor • The Independent
With just hours to go before the start of Shabbat, the Carmel Yiddish supermarket is doing a roaring trade. Shelves burst with rows of matzoh bread, tubs of pickled herring and potato salads, kneidlach dumplings, instant noodle soup mixes and borscht.
Large families of ultra-orthodox Jews hurry their way through the aisles, making sure they have all they need before the sun goes down. The soundtrack to their shopping spree is a mournful Yiddish lament playing in crackling tones over the store's tannoy.
For the next 24 hours most of Carmel's customers will come to a virtual standstill as they mark the Jewish holy day with quiet contemplation, prayer and family meals - all of which have to be cooked before sunset to avoid the prohibition on doing any work during the sabbath.
Carmel's is just one of the many Jewish supermarkets and bakeries in Stamford Hill, home to Europe's largest community of Charedi Jews.
The Charedis follow the most conservative interpretation of Orthodox Judaism and are as unmistakable on the streets of Stamford Hill as the mouth-watering smells of chicken soup wafting out of kitchen windows. The men dress in long black coats and hats, sport beards and twist their hair into curls that fall down the sides of their faces. Their wives usually opt for long dresses, hide their real hair behind wigs or headscarves and, with Charedi families having an average of six children, are rarely seen without at least one offspring in tow.
The community is proudly insular and eschews the trappings of modern life. But in the past week it has been uncomfortably thrust into the epicentre of a row over the nature of multi-culturalism and whether it is possible to be critical of Judaism without being accused of anti-Semitism.
On Wednesday, The Independent's columnist Christina Patterson wrote a column [See below] detailing how rude she believed many Charedi Jews were to non-Jews. A gentile resident of Stamford Hill for 12 years, she described how the ultra-orthodox community had made her feel "about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Ku Klux Klan convention".
"I didn't realise," she wrote, "that a purchase by a goy [a Yiddish phrase for a non-Jew] was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn't been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad."
The article - headlined "The limits of multi-culturalism" - went on to criticise the Islamic veil and laments the lack of successful prosecutions for female genital mutilation, a form of female circumcision which is practised by a number of different cultures and faiths.
Within hours of the article appearing online The Independent's website Patterson's email account was inundated with emotional comments from readers who were either delighted that the author had dared to write about such a contentious subject, or were outraged by what they perceived to be a vicious attack on Judaism.
Jewish columnists rounded on Patterson in unison with Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, accusing her of "unrelenting unadulterated anti-Jewish bigotry".
Miriam Shaviv, one of the paper's most prolific columnists, waded in with her own response to the article which she said was "one of the ugliest, most vile pieces ever published in the British press". "You rather get the feeling that [Patterson] a) hates the Jews and Muslims really, seriously more than is necessary and b) feels they really ought to thank her for generously giving them permission to exist," she wrote.
Yet Damian Thompson, a well-known Catholic blogger who regularly defends Israel and Judaism in his writing, came to Patterson's defence and said it was right to highlight the sense of superiority some Jews have towards gentiles.
"Monosyllabic terseness towards goyim?" he wrote in a recent blog for the Daily Telegraph. "I've experienced it and it's maddening. Jewish hostility towards Christians isn't confined to the ultra-Orthodox... I could tell stories, of unbelievable haughtiness by leaders of Anglo-Jewry, which would have led to diplomatic incidents if the Christians involved weren't afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism. I suppose I'm afraid of that, too."
Thompson's blog has since prompted a further response from Ms Shaviv who said that Jews do need to recognise how they are sometimes perceived by friends, neighbours and strangers alike. "There is today no excuse for Jews holding racist attitudes," she wrote. "We need to make sure we all understand that the odd comment about "the goyim" is not just a joke; that there are consequences to treating non-Jews as if they are inferior."
None of these arguments were lost on one resident of Stamford Hill yesterday. Dave, a plumber who declined to give his second name but said he had lived in the area for 30 years, said he had read Patterson's article and found himself agreeing and disagreeing with it in equal measure.
"There is a sort of aloofness to my Jewish neighbours and they do like to keep themselves to themselves," he said. "I recognise that. But it's never in a hostile way. Most groups have some sort of superiority complex, we all like to think we've got it right and others haven't. For me I just abide by live and let live. You lose far too much sleep if you don't."
A Community Apart?
*Jews have been living in the London borough of Hackney since the early 18th century but the ultra-orthodox community first began settling en masse in Stamford Hill shortly before and during the Second World War.
*Followers of different schools of Judaism settled in different suburbs, with the Charedi choosing an area that, at the time, was relatively far removed from the more inner-city areas such as Brick Lane to where most Jewish immigrants had initially flocked.
*The numbers of Charedim in Stamford Hill are now thought to be close to 20,000 making it the largest community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Europe. The majority are Yiddish- speaking Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Germany and central Europe and most follow the Hasidic branch of Orthodox Judaism.
*Further congregations of ultra-orthodox Jews have also settled in the North-east around Sunderland and in Salford, Manchester. There is also a small community of Yemeni Jews living in Stamford Hill whose numbers have increased significantly in the past 10 years because of growing attacks on the few remaining Jews left in Yemen. Almost all Charedi children are privately educated in religious schools funded by the community.
Christina Patterson's article:
The limits of multi-culturalism
When I first moved to Stamford Hill, I didn't realise that goyim were about as welcome in Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention
Christina Patterson • The Independent
I would like to teach some of my neighbours some manners. I would like, for example, to say to the man who drove the wrong way up a one-way street on Sunday night, while chatting away on his mobile phone, and to the man who nearly backed into me yesterday, while also chatting on his mobile phone, and to the man who drove into my friend's van last week, while also chatting on his mobile phone, that while they clearly enjoy the art of conversation, it's one that doesn't combine brilliantly with driving.
And I would like to say to the man who drove the wrong way into the car park at Morrisons, and then hooted me, and who parked in a mother and baby slot when he was on his own, and the car park was practically empty, that it seemed a rather aggressive thing to do, and also rather lazy, and I would like to say to the man from whom I bought some paper cups, and who handled my money as if it had been dipped in anthrax, that it wouldn't kill him to say "please" or "thank you", and I would like to say to the fishmonger who asked my (black) friend whether he really wanted to buy some fish from his shop, that you should probably assume that if someone is asking for fish in your shop, then the answer is in the affirmative.
And I would like to say to the little boy who sat bang in the middle of two seats on the bus and who, when I tried to sit next to him, leapt up as if infection from the ebola virus was imminent, that it does slightly make one feel like a pariah, and I would like to say to the women who roam the streets with double-decker pushchairs and vast armies of children, that it's sometimes nice to allow someone else to get past, and I would like to say to all these people that I don't care if they wear frock-coats, and funny suits and hats covered in plastic bags, and insist on wearing their hair in ringlets (if they're male) or covered up by wigs (if they're female), but I do think they could treat their neighbours with a bit more courtesy and just a little bit more respect.
When I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn't realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention. I didn't realise that a purchase by a goy was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn't been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad.
It also makes me sad to see the three-year-olds in hijab, who want, of course, to look like Mummy (all three-year-olds want to look like Mummy) but who, in any case, soon won't have much choice, and who are being taught that their tiny bodies, and their lovely hair, are things to be protected from the male gaze. It makes me sad to see young women in the niqab. I accept that some of them choose to wear it because they, too, have absorbed the message that they are a walking sexual provocation, and that this way they can shield themselves, and preserve themselves "as a precious jewel" for their husband, and maybe reclaim an identity that they don't want to lose, and maybe even stick two fingers up at a country which is, according to new leaks this week, bombing quite a lot of their innocent brothers and sisters, and maybe even, get some (secretly enjoyable) attention. I accept all this, but it still makes me sad.
(The young women, by the way, who were asked to leave that bus last week, might remember that Russell Square isn't a place that has great associations for any bus driver, and that they're living in a country in which covering your face has traditionally been a practice undertaken by criminals and terrorists and people who have something to hide, and that if they choose to dress this way, they might expect to be treated with some suspicion, just as women wearing shorts in a Middle Eastern country might expect to be treated like prostitutes.)
All these things make me sad, but I accept that people should, except in certain professional situations which involve dealing with the public, be allowed to wear whatever they like, and that laws which prevent this are self-defeating, and that you can't stop parents, or rabbis, teaching little boys that adult women shouldn't even be brushed against on a bus, and I accept that some of these things are an inevitable consequence of a modern, and in many ways magnificent, multi-cultural society.
But there's one thing I will never accept. In the next few weeks, between 500 and 2,000 British schoolgirls – yes, British schoolgirls – will be sent abroad, ostensibly on holiday, and taken to the home of a woman who will, using an often dirty razor, and no anaesthetic, slice off their labia, and clitoris, and then, using sewing thread or horse-hair and an often dirty needle, stitch their vaginas closed. Sometimes, the girls faint. Sometimes, they die. But the people who do this to them (in East Africa and India and Pakistan and the Middle East) believe that it's what God wants. They believe that it promotes "cleanliness" and "chastity". Oh, and men's sexual pleasure. But not, for obvious reasons, women's.
Female circumcision has been illegal in Britain since 1985. Since 2003, it has also been illegal to take girls out of the country to have them "cut" abroad. The maximum penalty is 14 years. So far, there have been no prosecutions. Not a single one. I don't care if evidence is difficult to get, and I don't care if parents think they're doing the right thing for their children, and I don't care if it's a "sensitive" issue. This is a total and utter disgrace. Parents are being allowed to mutilate their children, and the institutions in this country are doing sweet FA.
There is, I'm sure, nothing in the Koran to indicate that hacking off a girl's labia is an all-round great idea, just as there's nothing in the Torah to say that Volvos should always be driven with a mobile phone in hand, and goyim should be treated with contempt. People will believe what they believe, but a civilised society will have laws to indicate what is acceptable in that society and what isn't, and it will act on those laws. A properly civilised society would also ensure that children are not subject to the crazed whims of their parents, and hived off into "faith schools" where they're taught that the world was created in seven days, or that they need special gadgets to switch on the lights on a Saturday, or that women who show their face are sluts.
A properly civilised society would accept that while lovely little C of E schools were once an excellent place for children to learn about the religion that shaped their culture, art and laws, you can't have them without having the madrassa run by the mad mullah next door, and therefore, sadly, you can't have either, but have, instead, a system of compulsory state secular education, in which children learn to get on with people from all religious backgrounds and none, and are taught about all religions, but also that the culture of the country they're living in was, for 2,000 years, largely based on one.
But we, alas, are living in a country whose government believes that schools should be "free" – free to abandon the national curriculum, free to adopt any damned framework they fancy – and that parents should be free, with no state intervention at all, to teach their children whatever sexist, racist, dangerous, violent and yes, ill-mannered, nonsense that they like.
Damian Thompson's column:
The case of the Oxford lecturer in Jewish studies who says she was sacked after she converted to Christianity has thrown a spotlight on to an acutely sensitive subject. I have no idea whether Dr Tali Argov was treated unfairly – that’s for the employment tribunal to decide – but let’s not pretend that Jews who become Christians don’t face intense disapproval from their own community.
Christian anti-Semitism, Muslim anti-Semitism, Christian Islamophobia, Muslim persecution of Christians – all of these are acceptable topics of debate. But not Jewish hostility to Christianity.
You can understand why Jews might dislike the Christian religion: not only does it deify a man, the ultimate blasphemy for pious Jews just as it is for pious Muslims, but it’s also implicated in centuries of anti-Semitism. (I think its role in inspiring the Holocaust has been exaggerated, but that’s an argument for another day.)
Sometimes Jewish antipathy to Christianity spills over into hostility towards Christians. There was a piece in the Independent the other day by Christina Patterson that went way over the top in describing the rudeness of Stamford Hill’s ultra-Orthodox Jews towards gentiles:
When I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn’t realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Ku Klux Klan convention. I didn’t realise that a purchase by a goy was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn’t been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad.
Stephen Pollard, the brilliant editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described this as “pure, unrelenting unadulterated anti-Jewish bigotry,” on the part of Ms Patterson and indeed some of its undertones are disturbing. But monosyllabic terseness towards goyim? I’ve experienced it, and it’s maddening. Let me recommend a gripping book called Postville by the secular Jewish journalist Stephen Bloom, who records the extreme bad manners of Lubavitch Jews who moved en masse to a town in rural Iowa to run a huge kosher butchery. In the end, angry Christian townspeople, who had initially been welcoming, voted to annexe the land on which the factory was built, so they could tax and regulate it. Bloom, who felt the Lubavitchers had displayed “despicable” attitudes verging on racism, supported the move.
Jewish hostility towards Christians isn’t confined to the ultra-Orthodox. A woman friend of mine tutored the daughter of a Jewish couple in north London. When she said she wanted to take a break for Christmas, the wife went bananas. “We do not allow that word to be spoken in this house,” she said. An unrepresentative incident, no doubt; but my friend’s attitude towards Judaism changed after it took place. And I could tell other stories, of unbelievable haughtiness by the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, which would have led to diplomatic incidents if the Christians involved weren’t afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism.
I suppose I’m afraid of that, too, which is why I’m going to point out the following. This blog has often highlighted the alarming growth of Islamic anti-Jewish rhetoric, much of it flavoured by the propaganda of the Third Reich. I’ve drawn attention to the case of Baroness Tonge, the appalling Lib Dem peer who has called for an inquiry into allegations of Jewish organ-harvesting (and who still takes the party whip). I warned in advance that the Vatican was doing a stupid thing by lifting the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX.
But until now I’ve never written a word about Jewish prejudice against Christians, even though I’ve seen it at close hand, at a series of Jewish-run conferences I attended in America in the 1990s at which evangelical Christian believers were stereotyped as fanatics who needed only the right demagogue to turn them into murderous anti-Semites. If the conferences were being held now, I suspect most of the flak would be taken by Catholics.
It would be interesting read a book on anti-Christian sentiment among modern Jews, including Jewish historians who invest heavily in the notion of Christian or gentile collective guilt for crimes committed by others. But such a book would have to come from the perspective of someone without an axe to grind (ie, not one of the anti-Semitic nutcases who are such a depressing presence in the blogosphere). And something tells me it will never be written.
[Hat Tip: CS.]