I have been spending a lot of time in Stamford Hill recently, an area of North London where I used to live. It is home to a very large orthodox Jewish community. The children of this group are pretty much cut off from ordinary life in twenty first century Britain. They watch no television, have no computers or games consoles, do not play in the park or hang out listening to pop music. Their homes contain few books other than those of a religious nature and they all dress like eighteenth century Poles and Lithuanians. Many do not attend school regularly, being taught in small, unregistered homes by other parents. Is this anybody's business but their parents? Most home educators would probably claim that it is not and I suppose that they would be right. And yet, many people are uneasy about such a closed community, cut off from the rest of society. Interestingly enough, this community generated one of the key cases of precedent upon which home educators now rely; R v Secretary of State for Education, ex parte Talmud Torah Mackzikei Hadass School Trust.
I know, because I have dealings with various professionals in the area, that the children of this community have incredibly high rates of stammering, bedwetting and developmental disorders. Occasional cases of child abuse surface and the person who reports them to the police then becomes a traitor to his own community. The last time this happened, a lynch mob gathered outside of the person who went to the police, chanting, 'Informer' in Yiddish. This is another problem; many of the children are not too good at English, despite the fact that their families have lived in this country for fifty or sixty years. They have little opportunity and sometimes not even the ability to disclose any problems to outsiders.
This is not of course an anti-Semitic diatribe, targeting the Jewish community! I lived in Israel myself for some years and my first wife was orthodox. Nor is this the only closed community of which I am aware. Some Christian sects are almost the same and will not readily deal with outsiders. Their loyalty is more to their church than to society in general and when a child is abused, there is a tendency to cover it up and avoid a scandal. We have seen this with the Catholic Church and it also happens with Jehovah's Witnesses.
What, if anything, should we do about this? Should separate communities of this sort be tolerated in a liberal democracy? Or should the state adopt a pro-active approach and insist that such people keep in touch with ordinary society and open up a bit; allow their children the same experiences in life as others? This could be a problem. Some parents deliberately wish to avoid their children growing up to be interested in nothing but pop music and so on. The moral codes of devout Catholics, Jews and Muslims seem to me to be vastly preferable to what passes for ethics and morality among many young people today in western society. I would be interested to know to what extent, in any, readers feel that such things should be the business of anybody but the members of the community themselves.