Mind the gap: State directives, Orthodoxy, and living well in 21st-century Britain
How can we create an effective discourse on legal protections and responsibilities in self-protective religious minorities?
This project was founded due to a series of recent controversies in the UK which signaled a gap between urgent state directives and their uneven implementation in religious communities, which revealed that language, which is intentionally non-specific, coupled with an incommensurability of worldviews, can be dangerous.
The gap, or grey space, was enabled by the Equality Act (2010), a series of anti-discrimination laws, which are meant to protect UK minorities but sometimes, paradoxically, create conditions that lead to harm. This project sought to explore how generic government language around inclusion (e.g. ‘British values’ discourse) puts the burden of responsibility and agency on religious minority groups to navigate legislation in ways that may ultimately fail to safeguard their constituents.
What did the project involve?
Taking the case of Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Judaism, this Ideas Exchange sought to determine what issues fall into the interpretive grey space and how this grey space has imperiled (or has the potential to imperil) vulnerable community members. The team’s engagement with state and religious institutions, alongside emerging studies and media attention, had brought to the fore such issues as exceptionally high rates of coronavirus among Haredi neighbourhoods; forced marriages and divorce refusals; and a failure to include LGBT teaching in schools. The initial UK Government response to the coronavirus pandemic served as a real-time instructive case study: it is premised on advisory language and ‘principles’ rather than imperative directions, such that leaders are not ‘flouting’ rules by including large numbers of congregants in indoor spaces even as such practices have been proven to be highly conducive to the spread of the virus. This collaboration took the case of Haredi Judaism to understand what it means to live well in the 21st century, particularly regarding the values that surround religious freedom.
This Ideas Exchange brought interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary expertise together. The proposed research collaboration sought to engage with Haredi and Jewish advocacy groups, civil society figures, and artists to address and narrow the gap left by state equality discourse.
The project explored the key question of how can we create an effective discourse on legal protections and responsibilities in self-protective religious minorities? Additionally the project worked with Noa Lea Cohn, curator of the Jerusalem-based Art Shelter Gallery, featuring the work of ultra-orthodox artists, to plan a culturally appropriate online exhibit that invites viewers to consider the ways that protection of the state proves inadequate through creative expressions of community members.
Who are the team and what do they bring?
- Karen E. H. Skinazi (Liberal Arts, University of Bristol) is a literary critic and Senior Lecturer in Liberal Arts in the School of Humanities and author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2018). Karen studies cultural representations of ethnic and religious minorities.
- Ben Kasstan (Law School, University of Bristol) is a medical anthropologist and author of Making Bodies Kosher: The Politics of Reproduction Among Haredi Jews in England (Berghahn Books, 2019). Ben recently joined the Centre for Health, Law and Society as a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow to explore claims that legal rights to protection afforded to religious and sexual minorities are in conflict.
What were the results?
The project culmintated in an hour long interview between the researchers and a representative from the charity Nahuma. This interview discussed the key concerns of the project regarding the Haredi community and their position in British society. The interview has not been made public for privacy concerns.