GOING BACKWARD

London Rabbis Run Women Off the Road

One of the most powerful ultra-Orthodox groups says it will punish women who drive by banning their children from schools.

What does an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism in Britain have in common with Saudi Arabia? They both want women off the road.

Last week, rabbis from the Chasidic Belz sect in London banned women in their community from driving because it violates what they say should be female roles. The rabbis wrote an open letter expressing concern that there are an increasing among of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” to the community’s two schools, according to the Jewish Chronicle. The rabbis said this must no longer be tolerated because female drivers violate “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp.” Starting in August, they said, children driven to school by their mothers would be expelled. The only times when women will be allowed to drive are if women have medical or similarly serious reasons—and request formal permission through a request to a committee.

In response, the sect’s female representatives wrote that they agree with the ban and “believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”

The sect in question, the Belz, is one of the most widespread and powerful religious groups in Israel, scattered widely through the U.K. and North America. Surprisingly, the sect is often considered more moderate than others, though many women do not traditionally drive.

But a spokesman for the chief rabbi of the U.K. has called the view “entirely removed from mainstream Jewish practice” and so has the British government. And the U.K. ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance told The Independent that “telling women they can’t drive isn’t modest, it’s alienating. I don’t see any difference between this and the ban on driving in Saudi Arabia.”

After receiving complaints about the new rule, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has launched an inquiry into the declaration, calling it “completely unacceptable in modern Britain.”

The representative for Belz’s two main schools wrote in a reply letter that the issue was being blown out of proportion.

“It was never our intention to stigmatise or discriminate against children or their parents for the sole reason that either of the parents drives a car,” Ahron Klein wrote, noting that the choice of words in the original letter was unfortunate. But later in the apology, he reiterated that the policy would stay: “[A]s private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children.”