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If I am not for myself, who will be for me? A Profile of Yehudis Fletcher

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Karen Skinazi profiles Yehudis Fletcher, a Haredi political and social activist who helped to found Nahamu, an organisation dedicated to fighting extremism.

‘What would you do if, say, a transwoman who used to be part of the Haredi community lost the right to see her children in the civil courts?’ I asked (admittedly, it was only a sort of hypothetical question). ‘Would you be able to provide her with legal counsel?’

The story I was referring to, in which Haredi community professionals testified that the children of the transwoman would face bullying, prejudice and ostracism if allowed to see their father, was not unfamiliar to Yehudis Fletcher. For years, she has been receiving calls from individuals requiring assistance with police and courts, as well as from the police themselves, dealing with cases in the Haredi community. She was asked to speak, to advocate, to explain.

Yehudis had a good idea of the kind of extremism that went on, the kind that the community was shtum about. She also knew the ways the law supported it, with notions like the preservation of children’s status quo that would not only prevent a transwoman from seeing her own children but moreover, fail to question the safety of an environment that fosters so much prejudice against trans people that children are endangered if they acknowledge them as family. This extremism in the Haredi community is not the kind that’s about strapping on bombs and blowing up buses. ‘That’s outward-facing extremism’, she tells me. That’s the stuff you always hear about because it can affect anyone and everyone—so we all care. But the thing is, there’s also inward-facing extremism. ‘There are women who are denied the right to drive, children denied the right to a proper education. There are forced marriages. That’s extremism too’, she says.

She has written about these issues on a number of occasions, arguing last year, for instance, that private, Hasidic schools in the UK were failing children: ‘These are children who are routinely educated in unsafe buildings in unsanitary conditions. Children who receive little or no secular education and, despite being born in Britain, cannot speak English fluently when they graduate. These are schools where children are being hit and manhandled.’ These problems, she contends, can be mitigated by the Department for Education.

Of course, Yehudis is just one woman, with one set of stories. What was needed, she realised, was a group of people, and the collation of stories. What was needed was an organisation that could counter ideological harms in the Jewish community. What was needed was not just assistance on an individual basis, but a systemic one.

The planning for this organisation began two and a half years ago, in partnership with David Toube, a counter-extremism activist and Eve Sacks, a leader in the Jewish community. They brought in Rashad Ali, to learn from his work in the Muslim community; Daniel Jonas; and Ben Crowne. They decided to run focus groups, collate data, work with government bodies.

The group founded Nahamu this past February. Yes, February 2020, just as the pandemic as was surging its way through China and Italy and, unbeknownst to most of us, already within the UK’s borders. But the pandemic and consequent lockdown did not serve as great barriers to Nahamu’s work. ‘On the contrary’, Yehudis told me, ‘There’s so much to be done and discussed online’. Moreover, the pandemic brought to light existing problems that had long been hidden.

As one example, she tells me, there was a family with over ten kids who, as a result of the lockdown, lost their income. Like many Haredim, the father had worked for many years without officially reporting his income. Don’t be shocked. Haredim follow many rules, but primarily their own rules—and their own authorities’ advice. if you listened to ‘The Unorthodox Life of Miriam‘ on BBC Radio 4 a couple of years ago, you would be familiar with the problem of benefit fraud in British Haredi communities.

In short, the podcast tells the story of a woman who, under the guidance of the Agudas Israel community services, bought her house under the name of her brother in Israel in order to get housing benefits to pay off their ‘rent’—a common practice, she asserts, or even the ‘minhag’ of the place. As a result of her listening to the Agudas, she claimed, she was at the mercy of the community—a community she was desperate to leave. After all, benefit fraud is an offense punishable by a prison sentence. When she left the community, she knew that if she fought for her children, she could find herself outed for her criminal activity. As Yehudis pointed out, coerced criminality is not unusual in these communities, and it puts vulnerable people at risk in a number of ways.

So, what happened with the family who had lost their income during the pandemic but couldn’t declare it to get Dishy Rishi’s furlough scheme? Did the Haredi community support the people it plays a role in putting in these vulnerable positions?

On 15 June 2020, the Jewish News declared there would be free meals provided for people in such dire conditions thanks to a large government grant that was being administered at a local community level: ‘Food banks providing kosher meals to struggling families $100,000 grant.’ The article explained that Hot Line Meals, the Hackney charity distributing the meals, ‘typically charge a nominal fee, but as part of the government grant these struggling families will not have to pay a penny.’ Yehudis inquired on behalf of the family in need—but was faced with a wall of bureaucracy and obfuscation. Had the father been furloughed? Why didn’t he have proof of employment? Under the table—what do you mean? And finally: ‘There seems to be some misunderstanding in your conversation’, they said, ‘as the Jewish news article does not mention free meals’. Precisely the people who were given the DEFRA food grant to administer appropriately were the ones suddenly standing in the way of hungry children being fed.

Yehudis found herself arguing with Hot Line Meals in a series of emails while also comforting the family in need. To date, there has been no resolution.

Still, I am amazed at this powerhouse of a woman. ‘How can you do all that? How do you have time for that?’ I asked. After all, Yehudis is also a student, a mother, a writer, an activist, an indepedent sexual violence advisor for Migdal Emunah—a very busy woman. She doesn’t have time. Yet this is but one of the many ways that she learns about the harms afflicted on community members, and the more she knows, the better she is able to advise the government in its support of the community. The key being support – the point is not to slam the Haredi community. ‘This is my community’, she said. ‘Im ain ani li, mi li?‘ She utters the words of Rabbi Hillel.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

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Dr Karen E H Skinazi is a literary and cultural critic who works as a Senior Lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.
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