Monday, 11 January 2010

Exit rights - from states and communities

While avoiding revision I came across this BBC article. It's about Israelis who turn secular after being raised in charedi (ultra-orthodox) families. The resulting hardship they experience raised questions for me about tensions between the responsibilities of states and the rights of communities existing within them.

Multicultural theorists have discussed the idea of 'exit rights' for minority communities living within a state. An exit right can be defined as:

'an exemption from some legally mandated practice, granted to a person or a group, the purpose of which is to protect the religious or moral integrity of that person or group' (Jeffrey Jordan)

Here is an example of an exit right: In Britain, male Sikh's are exempt from wearing helmuts while driving motorbikes - something which is a legal requirement for any other British Citizen - since this would intefere with their wearing of the turban.

Reading about the difficult experiences of those who left the world of ultra-orthodox Judaism, however, gets me thinking about another sense of having an exit right: one which would be protection not from the laws of the state, but from the laws or restrictive social mores of a community within a state.

Essentially, if the state has a responsibility to protect community rights - as many multicultural theorists argue it does - then to what extent does it have a responsibility to support individuals within those communities should they wish to exit them? While individuals may have a legally enshrined right to choose their own lifestyles this right is meaningless if as a result of their education and upbringing they have little capacity to do so. Does the state then have a responsibility to enable all its citizens to function within mainstream society? To provide its citizens with both the right and associated capacity to exit their communities should they wish to?

In the Israeli charedi context the question is a significant one. As Irit Paneth of the organization Hillel, which offers practical help to former charedim, explains:

"They often do not know how to open a bank account, use the internet, find work and rent an apartment, she explains, or how to operate socially in the secular world."

If we accept a principle justifying exemption and protection for minority groups from the effects of majority laws or conventions, then it seems to me that this principle must be applied lower down as well: protecting minorities within minority groups from the restrictive practises of their community (should the individuals desire such help). For this reason, the work of the organization Hillel, I would argue, ought to be supported by the state and not left to the voluntary sector.

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