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UK government investigates Belz rabbis’ ban on women drivers

Minister calls ruling ‘unacceptable in modern Britain’; children driven to school by their mothers in north London community face expulsion

Nicky Morgan, the UK Secretary of State for Eduction, alongside Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons, October 2014 (AP Photo/Parliamentary Recording Unit via AP)
Nicky Morgan, the UK Secretary of State for Eduction, alongside Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons, October 2014 (AP Photo/Parliamentary Recording Unit via AP)

The British government launched an investigation into a new directive by leaders of a north London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community barring women from driving.

In an open letter, a number of Belz rabbis in the Stamford Hill suburb wrote that female drivers defied Hasidic norms as well as “traditional rules of modesty,” the Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday. The rabbis also said that as of August, children driven to school by their mothers would be expelled.

Britain’s Education Secretary Nicky Morgan called the directive “completely unacceptable in modern Britain,” and said the government was taking the matter ‘very seriously.”

Launching an investigation into the matter on Friday, Morgan added: “If schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent school standards. Where we are made aware of such breaches we will investigate and take any necessary action to address the situation.”

The ban is believed to be unprecedented in the UK, and has prompted comparisons with bans on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

In a vox pop among community members on Friday, the Guardian found overwhelming support for the ban, among men and women. One man from the Belz community said: “I agree with the policy of women not driving. Hassidic women have never driven cars. No one is unhappy. Not one of my friends would let his wife drive.”

And a woman from the community added: “I don’t drive, because I want to be part of this community… There’s no ban on driving in other parts of the Jewish community. I can choose to educate my children in different schools; there are over 20 to choose from in Stamford Hill. But I believe that if you join a private school you have to abide by their rules.”

The new guidelines were endorsed the leaders of the local Belz educational institutions and the Israeli Belz Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who suggested the expulsion policy as a form of punishment.

Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill section of London. (photo credit: CC BY dcaseyphoto, Flickr)
Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill section of London. (photo credit: CC BY dcaseyphoto, Flickr)

The letter explained that “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” prompted the new measures after numerous complaints led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions.”

While many ultra-Orthodox women belonging to the Belz sect do not drive anyway, the report noted that the Stamford Hill directive is thought to be the first formal declaration against women drivers by a Jewish community in Britain.

Dina Brawer, the UK ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compared the new measures to the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia, and said that “the instinct behind such a draconian ban is one of power and control, of men over women.”

Brawer called it “shameful and disturbing” that the policy was being disguised as a halachic imperative.

One local rabbi told the paper that he supported the policy because it upheld the community’s traditional values. “It’s always been regarded in Hasidic circles as not the done thing for a lady to drive,” he said.

However, a Stamford Hill woman interviewed by the paper argued that the policy was discriminatory and “disables women.”

“The more kids they have, the more they need to drive,” she said.

The Belz dynasty is one of the largest and most powerful religious movements in Israel, and has sizable communities in the UK, US and Canada.

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