Law number 23 and my experiences with Orthodox special education

In recent years, my work has been focused on breaking free from Orthodoxy in a social context and not so much on the mild secularization processes that people can also experience. As a whistleblower and activist, I’ve researched some pretty extreme currents that are antithetical to human rights today – especially children’s and women’s rights. Those are ‘breaking free processes’ that involve great sacrifices for the individual. Until now, I deliberately stayed away from the public debate about religious or special education. But the time has come to share my thoughts on the matter.

Great experiences and integrity violations

I have always found religious or special education in the Netherlands a very complicated theme, especially because in my history, it is associated with both a number of beautiful experiences and major integrity violations that have led to the existential loss of not having any biological children for the time being.

More concretely, I am still happy with the enormous amount of Jewish lessons from that time. After all, that knowledge enables me to choose what fits my blueprint. Without knowledge, there is no basis for making choices. Adequate knowledge is underestimated. Evidence for this are people who, for example, return to their transgenerational, religious roots at a later age, from an almost infantile, melancholic and romantic state of being.

At the Cheider (the only Jewish Orthodox school that we have in the Netherlands), I had thirteen hours of Jewish lessons a week and about three quarters of an hour of prayer a day. These were grueling days, from half past eight to half past five and once home after six, I dealt with worry. Worry in the sense of the various forms of coercion, danger and serious disturbance. From the outside, the worry was both visible and invisible. And on average, I still managed to finish the tons of homework late at night under those circumstances, in order to be able to perform again the next day. I did it with utmost precision and dedication, paving my way to a better future. Anyway, I still call many of those lessons pure wealth today.

An example of such a beautiful philosophical work is Pirkei Avot. It makes one think deeply about the gray areas that life presents us and how to act with morals, ethics and integrity. It never gets boring: endlessly thinking with the most sincere intentions about how people can do the right thing. At the time, I did not do this on the basis of what was ‘approved’ and ‘expected’ in terms of thought process, but on the basis of my internal compass. I filled notebooks with musings à la Marcus Aurelius. I kept those notebooks for a long time. We have gaming nerds in the world and then we have thinking nerds like me. The seeds for what would later become The Integrity Talks and integrity consults were being planted already.

In addition, my experience with the tight group of girls at that school is also quite special. Year after year, we formed a group, beyond whether we agreed with each other, liked each other, and whether we really knew each other or not. We shared an identity in a hermetically sealed bubble. There was a kind of soul-level love with not a proper rational explanation. Recognition, transgenerational survival and unworldly loyalty are the only rational shout-outs that I can come up with, but those do not cover the load. The feeling is very difficult to convey. A kind of link that connected me magnetically through interaction, even when I was not pleased with the person, or when I fundamentally disagreed about something.

The integrity violations need no further explanation: facilitating harmful traditional practices, looking away, sweeping things under the rug, keeping civil aid agencies out, power structures, dogmas, brainwash and more. A level of stockholm syndrome was also almost automatically maintained in integrity violations.

With such a background, I have the right to speak up and seek confrontation in order to bring about change – literally only to support doing the right thing. A task that, as an enfant terrible, I would have given myself even if I had had children. Because change in this context is too important to do nothing. Someone from the group has to do it, with the best of intentions. Loved or hated, believable at least.

Interests of the child and implications for society

However, I did not want to form an opinion on special education solely based on a personal history and the stories around me. I did not want to jump to conclusions based on injuries and emotions. Because let it be clear that if there is anyone who should be against special education from an emotional point of view, it would be me. Now, I have been able to study these kinds of educational systems from the perspective of reason.

From my own research, I drew the following conclusions: the most frequently mentioned advantages of special education are the strong identity formation that is being cultivated, the safety that segregation offers (the hermetically sealed bubble or sense of community) and the personal attention in education – often with good results such as high success rates as a consequence. Unfortunately, children with certain religious roots are still publicly bullied or treated differently in public schools.

What parents often will say is that the school should be an extension of the ideas and way of living at home. The question is whether that is true in the context of children’s rights. And whether the advantages mentioned previously weigh up against all the disadvantages that we can come up with as a collective, which no longer need to be mentioned explicitly in the current public debate. For example, the majority of the Dutch believe that law number 23 of the Dutch Constitution, which is more than one century old and which regulates freedom of education, should be examined. Rationales concern the best interests of the child and the implications for society.

Governance remains a significant problem

Look, the most honest answer is that I do not think that any solution is sufficient in the current state of our society. However, if I look at the quality and quantity of the pros and cons of special education, in other words the content gravity and the numbers that can be compared against each other, then I come to the conclusion that public education is the best. Here is how:

Governance is simply not possible in religious, special and home education. An example: dogmas and brainwashing such as that homosexuality is forbidden and punishable by God cannot be intercepted because those are transmitted orally and programmed psychologically into a child – sometimes lovingly and sometimes in an extremely persistent manner, with psychological mechanisms similar to coercive control and narcissism. At a later age, twisted ways of thinking and living arise, so a clash between the generally applicable norms, values and laws of a country and what has been transferred in the bubble. What generally applies, we can mold jointly to some extent. What is being transferred in the bubble stays static.

Another example: governance is not only about whether someone (for example a teacher or director) has a criminal record, or can easily obtain a Declaration of Good Conduct. It is also about matters such as taking responsibility and, in case of wrong managerial decisions with a major impact on human lives, acknowledging the failure and proactively leaving. Or when someone is guilty of wrong-doing, for example blackmailing someone by offering religious recognition as a reward for receiving sexual acts, acknowledging the failure and proactively leaving.

Governance is often about toxic matters which are still barely made demonstrably and in which case the domain of legislation and regulations can mean virtually nothing, or is extremely limited. Things that can make children transmissibly toxic. I’d like to say: that can make children sick.

A school, or a person in case of homeschooling, can do their best to improve and change, but the question is whether that is possible. Doesn’t that mean fighting a running battle and complicating things unnecessarily that could have been prevented? Is it still relevant at this time?

I am quite skeptical about it, also in the case of the Cheider. I am content for them that they have acquired a reasonably fresh, female dean brimming with ambition and energy. I think of the children at that school a bit as my children, although it cannot be explained rationally and there is no biological or ideological connection at all. With the improvements made by ‘learning from the mistakes of the past’, governance still remains a significant problem and I don’t see how governance can be fully corrected. If it can be done, then show it. But again, so far I don’t see how.

More importantly, in a collective sense, I would be content with a society in which classrooms bring jellabas and black hats together, without them having to compromise on their human dignity. Inclusivity, without literal and figurative walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Being able to disagree fundamentally about something with respect and love and being able to live with that. That is quite a learning process. For the time being, this appears to be a utopia on a large scale.

The most common argument is that one’s own identity will be threatened. I think that fear is nonsense and only arises when a blueprint does not suit a person. But when jellabas and black hats match someone’s lifestyle, these joint class gathering should not be a problem. In addition, identity, culture and mentality should be subordinate to humanity.

For now, we will continue to shed light on this theme. I will read the responses to my thoughts with great interest.

The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.