Secularism 2019: Izzy Posen, Why God Doesn’t Like Educated Kids: A Personal Account

Secularism 2019: Izzy Posen, Why God Doesn’t Like Educated Kids: A Personal Account

October 2, 2019 3 By Ronny Jaskolski


Josephine Macintosh: We’ll now begin our final session
before the keynote speech in which we’ll be talking about children’s rights.
Discussions surrounding the freedom of parents to raise their children
according to their religion often neglect the rights of the children
themselves. Do parents have a right to make life-altering decisions about their
children based on their religious beliefs? Do children’s bodies belong to
their parents or to themselves? and to what extent should parents be able to limit
their child’s education in the name of religion if that education fails to
prepare children for life in the UK? These are the questions our next two
speakers will be discussing starting with Izzy Posen. Izzy’s life is nothing
short of extraordinary – he was born and raised in a reclusive Hasidic
Jewish community in London learning no English and very little education beyond
religious texts. At the age of 15 Izzy began to teach himself English and about
the outside world resulting in him eventually
leaving his community and then becoming a student at the University of Bristol
where he is still a student I think and president of his free speech society. I’d
like you all to warmly welcome Izzy. Izzy Posen: Thank you very much for that warm
welcome. I must say it’s very, it’s extremely refreshing to be here coming
from the student campus context. Almost everything said here today is grossly
Islamophobic on the campus context – we are all a bunch of bigots and Nazis. I’ll
talk more about that in, when I come to talk about my free speech activism on
campus but it’s just so refreshing that we can talk about important issues that,
you know, we can’t just hide from them, we can’t pretend they don’t exist – they
exist and sometimes they need sensitive talking about but I don’t think anyone
here is actually a fascist or a Nazi or….. and it’s amazing that we can have
these discussions so thank you for providing this space. So as you can see
on the picture I put up, just in case you don’t know which one is me – I’m the one
on the left – that is me in my Hasidic days which is roughly until four years
ago and I’ll tell you a little bit about my story, so this is gonna be very much
a personal account and then may be at the end, if we have time- I know I was
given 20 minutes – I’ll talk a little bit about what the government can do to
solve these problems and how they might go about it, but I’ll leave most, I’ll mostly
contain myself to a personal account. So, I grew up in the Hasidic Jewish
community of Stamford Hill in East London in the borough of Hackney – another word – sometimes refeferred to as the Haredi community – for the purpose of this
talk they’re interchangeable. So what does this community look like? It’s not just
any old extremist religious community it’s not just a community that, you know,
lives in society but has extremist views, this is much more like a cult. They live
completely and utterly segregated from the rest of society, not physically,
physically they live in London and, you know, we walk on the same streets as you
may have worked but spiritually, socially – completely isolated.
For example, we lived on a road in Stamford Hill – we had on the one side we
had a Jewish neighbor, on the other side we had a non-jewish neighbor. We were
best friends with the Jewish neighbors, we played with their kids
we didn’t even know what the non-jewish neighbor was called, we didn’t talk to
them, we didn’t greet them – they were just not there. The community mostly,
especially men, speak Yiddish not English. Most men in the Hasidic community of
Stamford Hill don’t know how to speak English and this is of course an
isolationist mechanism so that even if they wanted to know what’s on the
outside, they cannot. So how does this community
arise and where did this extreme isolationism come from? So at the late
18th century a process of secularization and enlightenment happened in the Jewish
communities. It started off in Germany then spread to Eastern Europe as well.
Most Jews secularized so whereas up until that point Jewish people saw
themselves mostly as a religious community from that point on there was
extremely common to start to see secular Jews and atheist Jews. As the case is today,
most Jews are not religious or secular. As a response to that process some
Orthodox rabbis started the process of isolating themselves from the rest of
society. So they started by formalizing Jewish
dress – so Hasidic dress code is very very recognizable – men will wear black hats,
long black coats, beards and sidelocks – you can see that I’m not wearing a black
coat, that’s already because it’s in my rebellious period. Women will, will dress very modestly –
most married Hasidic women will have the head shaven off so that they can’t,
even if they wanted to, they couldn’t show their hair to a man which is
forbidden according to orthodox law. There’s extreme sex segregation in the
community and when I say extreme, I mean extreme in the sense that the only women
I spoke to from the age of 13 until 20 was my mother , my grandmother and my
three sisters. I had over 20 aunts – I didn’t speak with them. I had hundreds of
cousins, female cousins – didn’t speak with him. We didn’t speak with our female
neighbors and so on. Education is, is – they don’t go to public schools, they don’t
use the schools that others use, they have their own institutions where they
teach their brand of their strict religion. So I hope you’ve understood by now
this isn’t, maybe even thinking of this community as a religion is misleading,
this isn’t a religion – I mean it’s a religion as well, but this is something
that encompasses and controls every second of your being – there isn’t a
second in your day that you’re not thinking about what you can and cannot
do. There’s, there’s a corpus of law called the Shulchan Aruch which is the
canonized Orthodox law and that controls every second of your day. You wake up in
the morning, you want to put on your shoes – there’s a rule of how you do it :
you can’t just put on your shoes okay, you’ve got to slip in your right foot in
your right shoe, you don’t tie your shoe, you slip in your left shoe, your left
foot in your left shoe then you tie your left shoe and then you tie your right
shoe, okay and there’s detailed reasons – there’s generations of scholars arguing
about this detail of how to put your shoes on. It’s funny but it’s also
sad because this is the, the Jewish intellectual spirit’s response to being
closed off in ghettos and not being allowed to go to Uni for
generations in Europe – they just started doing this kind of stuff. On the Saturday it says in the Bible you
should rest from work. You get ridiculous things from that – you can’t tear your toilet
paper to wipe your bum on the Saturday because doing so is creating work, you’re
tearing something so thousands of Orthodox families before sunset on
Friday sit there and tear toilet paper so it’s pre-prepared.
Okay, so what does the schooling system look like? They, there’s an extensive
network of ultra-orthodox schools. Now one thing not many people know about is
that within ultra-orthodox communities there’s very few people you can talk to
as an ultra-orthodox jew even within the community. Why? because being such an
extreme ideology, you think that almost everyone else has got it wrong, okay, so I
belong, I belong to a specific sect within the community called Satmar. Satmar
won’t talk to the sect called Belz, Belz won’t talk to the sect
called Chabad and so on – there are hundreds of them. There’s no intermarriage and
they have separate schools so you have a situation where in Stamford Hill you
have hundreds of different institutions for kids – different schools because they
won’t share schools. Now not only won’t Satmar talk with Belz, the Satmar Rebbe –
the lead of Satmar – died in 2006 and he had two kids –
each kid started his own, and now Satmar A won’t talk to Satmar B and Satmar B
won’t talk to Satmar A and they won’t inter-marry so they have separate
schools. The schooling system in Haredi communities is separated roughly so
there’s ‘primary’ school until the age of 13 when you bar mitzvah – according to
Jewish law you’re an adult, and from the age of 13 you go to what’s called yeshiva. From the age of 13 almost no Hasidic
yeshiva will teach any secular education whatsoever
because they believe you’re an adult now you’ve got to devote all your life to
the study of God’s law so they have yeshiva – it’s like secondary school except that you don’t learn anything. Of course you do, you learn
Talmud but no secular education, no maths, no English, no history, no science.
So, according to law, you can’t do that – you can’t have a secondary school where you
don’t teach any secular education so all yeshivas in Stamford Hill are
illegal schools, all of them, and there are roughly thirty yeshivas that I can
name – all of them illegal, the government is aware of them – I’ll come to talk a little
bit about that in a moment. For primary schools, most Hasidic schools believe that kids under the age of 13, they allow – they shouldn’t learn a lot
of secular education but they’re allowed to have an hour so a day – that’s fine and so
most schools are legal – there’s issues with these schools: they’re always inadequate
upon Ofsted inspection but most of them are legal.
My family was holier than that so even the primary school I went to was illegal
and this is the very, is the one primary school in my community that was illegal
because they believe that from birth you mustn’t study any secular education. So I
spent my years in cheder from the age of three – Cheder is the, is the Yiddish word for primary school – from the age of three
until the age of thirteen we studied very important things like what happens,
the Talmud has discussions – what happens if your neighbor’s ox kills your
cow, who has to pay and what kinds of linens and cloths you cannot mix
together and wear – very important life skills and no, as in no English, no
maths, no nothing. None of the teachers were qualified – they don’t believe in
that kind of qualifications – these goyim, these non-jews are not going to come and
tell us what and how we should raise our kids and they use the biblical line of
withhold your rod, hate your son – for discipline. So if we were misbehaving, we
were cheeky, we came late we were hit and there was a whole method of how
the teachers would hit us. They usually, the teachers usually had a, a set of
sticks depending on the severity – so a small stick if it’s a small offence, big
stick if it’s a big offence and they were very creative these teachers – twigs,
branches, rulers – all kinds of things and they didn’t shy away from using their
hands as well. It was also very unsafe environment – that
illegal school I went to – they didn’t have a fridge so for breakfast they
stored the milk, in the winter they stored it on the roof of the, of the school and
every day there was a rota of one child would have to climb up on the roof and
get the milk down and this is not with a ladder – climbing up on pipes, getting
the milk down. I don’t think this would pass any risk assessment in a secular
school. The hygiene conditions were horrific
and excuse my, my French here but there were rivers of urine flowing out of the
toilets. It was not cleaned, nobody looked after it, nobody cared, all that matters
was the spiritual growth in their interpretation. Every year there was a
period when we would hide because there was a legal school nearby, neighboring us
and when we knew inspectors were coming to that school we didn’t want to
give the impression that we’re there, we would hide so we were very aware that
we were illegal, those kids knew, were aware, but we had this narrative that these are
the evil, the evil people who dislike our faith trying to convert us to their
agenda so the kids supported the teachers in hiding – nobody thought ‘wait a
minute let me, let me complain to them about the hitting, let me tell them the
bad conditions’ because we were told we were the right, we were the good guys. So,
how did I get here? When I was a teen I started asking questions and I started
thinking and reading books I wasn’t meant to, in Yiddish of course, because I
couldn’t speak English or read English back then but there’s plenty of material
in Hebrew and Yiddish that is of a heretical nature. No, no I’m serious,
there’s plenty of Yiddish secularists have written stuff in Yiddish and Hebrew atheists, Israeli atheists have written stuff in Hebrew, so there is. Eventually I started, I realized I wanted
to know more about my country, I wanted to, to meet people outside of my
community so I start teaching myself English so I got hold of this
dictionary which was made available for the girls of the community – so what I didn’t
say, is that girls of the community are brought up very differently to boys. So, boys have the commandment that they have to study the Torah all day long, girls are allowed to
study other things – the girls usually do have a better secular education.
Ironically the sexes, so the reason the girls don’t study the Torah is because they’re
not ‘holy’ enough, right and they’re not clever enough to understand the Torah.
I don’t believe that anymore, just to be clear, but ironically the sexism that
says that women are inferior to men results in the fact that women are far more
educated than men because they can study English. So it was, so I got hold of this
dictionary that the community publishes for the girls in the community. Now you
can’t just use any old dictionary because you have words like sex in there
and, you know, we can’t have our pure girls reading such words
so they published their own censored version of the dictionary which has all the
bad words taken out – I looked up, it doesn’t have the word Christmas in it
for example in this censored dictionary – Jesus was a bad Jew – so I got hold of this
dictionary, I started teaching myself reading, reading children’s books in
English. Eventually I started sneaking, sneaking into libraries and I could read
English books, I brought home books – hid them under my mattress and I practiced
reading like that. At the age of 20 I got hold of the internet which – oh, I forgot
to mention – all forms of social media are forbidden, all access to the outside
world in that way are forbidden so Hasidic Jews don’t watch TV, they don’t listen to
the radio, don’t read newspapers – they have newspapers of their own, in Yiddish,
but they don’t read English newspapers and of course the internet is strictly
banned so once I got hold of the Internet it was, it was a whole new world
opened up – suddenly I could see I’m not the only crazy person with doubts –
there’s a whole community out there of people who, who think that this stuff is
crazy and who question things so it was really liberating and it didn’t take
me much, it didn’t take me long – after three months of being on the Internet I no
longer believed a thing so, so maybe the rabbis are right, that the Internet is
dangerous. Now leaving – I was about to leave the
community, I no longer believed, I wanted to go to university, I wanted to study
philosophy and physics which I am doing now but I didn’t have an education. At
that point I could speak English already but I hadn’t met any non-Jewish person –
not only non-Jewish, non-orthodox person, I hadn’t met any non-orthodox Jews. So I got hold,
I got in touch with this charity called Mavar which I’m greatly indebted to. So
this is a charity set up specifically to help people in my situation and and help
them explore the world, they advised me on how to go about getting, catching up on
education – my goal was as soon as possible to be in university
because I was a 20 year old without a high school level education and
I felt very self-conscious and I wanted to be at a point where, where, you know,
I’ve done that, I’m at university – ok, yes I’m a couple of years older than others but
that’s not a big deal – so in my first year after leaving
I took the three basic GCSEs you need to get into University so I took a science
GCSE, Maths and English. The next year I did the foundation course and physics and
maths and that was enough and, and a year later I got into Bristol. Now
as soon as I left the community, everyone there cut me off, completely. The rabbi’s
told my parents that none of my family is allowed to talk with me – I’m the
oldest of 10 and as you can see I’m a very dangerous individual so the rabbi’s
decided I’ll be a danger to my siblings faith so thankfully now I can laugh about
it it’s been four years but it’s, it’s been four years since I’ve spoken with
with almost all of my siblings – eight, eight of my nine siblings – one sibling
has since been in touch, three or four months ago he started communicating with me
which I’m, which I’m extremely happy about but otherwise my grandparents
don’t speak with me, my cousins, my friends. In fact after I left I phoned my
granddad and he picks up the phone he’s like “hello?”, I’m like “hey, this is your
grandson, Yitzchok – Yitzchok’s my Hebrew name – he’s like “Have you repented yet?” , I’m like
“No, but I want to talk with you, you know, you’re my granddad” and he says “When you
repent call me back” and he knocked down the phone. So I came to
University and this is where the free speech issue will come in, come
about, now I had this very idealistic and perhaps mythological view of the
universe that outside, yes in the community I was repressed and I didn’t have free speech and I couldn’t question but surely outside in the world everyone
cherishes their freedom and everyone is just liberal and enlightened and secular
and everyone just goes around free, talking their mind and everyone’s like
respectful, like, sure I disagree but you know what? yeah, good for you for holding
that opinion and, and perhaps I was naive but I came to
Uni and I was quite disappointed that just saying very basic things can get
you in trouble – like, you know, probably the speech I made here
would be considered anti-Semitic, despite the fact that I’m still a proud Jew and as
we’ve heard before from other speakers they say that they’ve been called
Islamophobic again, despite the fact that the proud Muslims. So I was very
disappointed about that so I decided to change it. On campus I started last year
the Bristol Free Speech Society which besides for being Nazi and fascist and
everything else what we also do, I don’t, I’m very care…, I need to be more careful here
because I don’t even know if – people may be so far removed from the university
context that they don’t get the joke. They – think about it for a second – I have
been called on multiple occasions a fascist on campus, okay, and I’m left of
center, but I’m a fascist – read the news. So I started the Free Speech Society – we invite
speakers to have, to have discussions about a wide, a wide range of ideas and
we especially want to have these difficult discussions where people
get heated up and people start instead of arguing they start resorting to ad
hominems and to ‘yo mama’ so, you know, that kind of thing because we, we do
believe and I do believe and we as, my society in Bristol believes that
we can have respectful dialogue on difficult issues – it doesn’t have to be
abusive, so we invite speakers to talk about transgender issues –
which is a big issue on campus – Islam and it’s, it’s an uphill battle, it’s a
real struggle. Last month we invited Emma Fox from the
Henry Jackson Society to talk about a report she had written on extremism on campus
and unsurprisingly she found that there were many many instances in the year
2017 – 2018 of people whom the government describes as extremist being invited on
campus to espouse their extremism and we invited her to talk about this report,
but guess what ? these extremists weren’t stopped, weren’t stopped from coming on campus but Emma Fox
was, okay, so Emma Fox was suddenly overnight branded – nobody had
heard of her before, she’s a young woman working for the Henry Jackson society and overnight
suddenly people brand her as an Islamaphobe because she was talking about Islamic
extremism on campus and within days there was a Facebook event with 400
people saying they’re gonna protest and make sure the event doesn’t happen and
the university told us they can’t protect us, so they shut down the event
and we, and we have similar things when we talk about transgender issues – it gets
very, very heated, very volatile very quick. I believe some of the audience
have been, some of the audience here have been to our event in Bristol
where we invited a woman called Heather Brunskell-Evans – she’s an academic, I
believe in UCL, who isn’t transphobic, isn’t a fascist, she does she just raises
issues with the transgendering of kids – she believes that maybe the age, there
should be an age restriction, whatever and we invited her and the event was, was
disrupted with protesters coming in and reading names of trans people who
were sadly murdered for being trans as if implying that having a discussion
about it means that we suddenly don’t care about trans people being murdered –
of course we care – this is having a discussion. What can the government do?
The government doesn’t, the government wants to help communities like this but
it’s very very difficult so as we’ve seen in Birmingham with RSE education,
communities are very resistant to outside pressure. Now when it comes to my
particular community and this doesn’t apply to all, to all religious community – I’m
talking about my particular community – I don’t think that immediately focusing on RSE
education is the way forward – this community is so so far away from it, it’s
like trying to introduce liberal democracy in a Stone Age Society. No
first they have to develop agriculture, you know – they’re not there yet. I think, I
think the government should focus on making sure that teachers are qualified,
making sure that schools are legal, as a bare minimum – if the school is illegal, we
don’t know what’s happening to these kids. If a school is legal at least we
know – there can be inspections, we can know. And making sure that there’s basic English
education – I don’t think it’s acceptable that kids are growing up in this
country and they can’t communicate in the language of their country.
And hopefully then we can, we can hope that slowly things will change in terms
of sex education as well and acceptance of the other, acceptance of LGBT
individuals, acceptance of atheists but I I think we’re very very far away from
that. So, that’s all I would say in terms of, because there seems to be a
conflation of people – always want to, people want to apply the law correctly
and they want to be harsh – they want to say what do you mean a school doesn’t
teach RSE education they have to by law but we’ve also got to be pragmatic,
we’ve got to work with communities – if a community is not there yet, we’ve got to
work with them to see how we can get them there rather than being seen by the
community as being the enemy from outside coming in and imposing their
values on others and I think at this point, I’ll, yeah, I’ll stop.