The Daughters of Zelophechad take on the police

I’m moving house this week so am not leading services or giving a sermon for Parashat Pinchas. But if I was, this is the sermon I would give…

The story of the Daughters of Zelophechad (Numbers 27:1-8) is one of my favourites. Five women – named women – find a sexist injustice in the law, so they take on Moses and convince him to take on God, who finds in their favour and changes the rules. It’s a real text for Progressive Jews who find it impossible to view Jewish law, as recorded in the Torah, as infallible.

The injustice they found was that a deceased man’s property would pass to his sons. That was all very well (up to a point) so long as he had sons. But if he had no sons, there was a bit of a gap in the law, because the property couldn’t pass to his daughters. Apparently it had never occurred to anybody that a situation might arise where someone might die leaving only daughters. But that was the (admittedly very specific) situation in which Zelophechad passed away. And just because nobody had thought this scenario through, why should the women be denied justice?

There’s a midrash recorded by the 15th-century commentator Abarbanel, however, which takes the story to another level. He says that the women were being given the bureaucratic run-around. They went to Moses, who said, “Don’t bother me with this, take it to the priests.” They went to the priest Elazar, who said, “Don’t bother me with this, take it to the tribal chiefs.” They went to the tribal chiefs, who said, “This is above our pay-grade, you need to ask Moses.”

Eventually, Abarbanel records, the daughters put their heads together and came up with a creative plan, with cunning worthy of a Professor of Cunning at Oxford University. They waited until Moses, Elazar and the tribal chiefs were all in the same place – a public place, the entrance to the Tent of Meeting – and then went to make their demand before all of them. And then, only then, none of these men was able to dodge their duties as a leader.

Earlier this year, the whole scenario was repeated somewhat. The Centre for Women’s Justice had some concerns, about a very precise situation that nobody had really considered in detail before. Domestic violence committed by police officers.

If we think about it, it’s unsurprising that police officers are particularly disposed to domestic violence. They’re generally athletic and fit. Predominantly male. They’re used to using their bodies in their work. And they deal with aggression all day every day. I’d never thought about it before, but as I read about the CWJ’s work, I realised, of course this is going to be an issue.

But it gets worse than that – because when a woman is abused by a partner that happens to be a police officer, what happens next? She could make a report at her local police station… but all the officers there are friends and colleagues of the abuser.

The CWJ has tried raising these concerns informally for years, before Moses, before the priests, before the tribal chiefs. Everybody directed them to someone else. So eventually, they put their heads together and came up with a creative plan: a super-complaint.

Hardly anyone’s heard of a police super-complaint. It’s a very rarely-used procedure whereby certain campaigning organisations can submit a high-level dossier of evidence about “a feature, or combination of features, of policing in England and Wales that is significantly harming the interests of the public”, and demand an investigation and, within 56 days, a published response. The response must be jointly authored by the Office of Police Conduct, the Inspector of Constabulary and the College of Policing.

If approached singly, each of these bodies could try to push the complainants to each other and avoid dealing with the issue. But the CWJ gathered all three at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, made a super-complaint, and is currently waiting for the response.

The super-complaint itself makes dispiriting reading:

[There] is a risk of lack of integrity, of officers (both suspects and their colleagues) manipulating the system and acting in bad faith in a variety of ways […] A distinctive aspect of police-perpetrated domestic abuse is that the partners of such men feel doubly powerless. They experience the powerlessness that most domestic abuse victims suffer, but in addition their abuser is part of the system intended to protect them […T]hey feel a deep lack of confidence in the criminal justice system. Their unique position justifies special arrangements to ensure that this group of women have greater protections, better outcomes, and that justice is seen to be done.

The Daughters of Zelophechad found themselves in a unique position, caught by a gap in the law, and they found a creative method to ensure that the necessary change took place. May the Centre for Women’s Justice achieve the same.

The Centre for Women’s Justice is a registered charity and you can donate here.

Barnet’s parks: a review

Lockdown’s been here a while so I’ve had a chance to explore many of the parks and open spaces listed on Barnet Council’s list of parks and open spaces – and even a few that are ex-directory! And while I’m yet to discover that crucial factor that distinguishes a park from an open space, I am in a position to present a review of the civic amenities I’ve had the honour to visit so far:

Golders Hill Park

Wildlife: ★★★★★
Varied landscape: ★★★★
Consistency of open and shut gates: ★

This is my ‘local’ – my local park and my local zoo – and I’m very lucky to have it. Just a few minutes’ walk away from my house I can hang out with both ring-tailed lemurs and Charedi Jews. Black and white is very much the theme here. That said, the place is surrounded by gates, and features a few internal gates as well, and I’ve yet to work out any pattern in which ones are open and which ones are locked at any given moment.

Child’s Hill Park

Unusual features: ★★
Beautiful vistas: ★
Chance of being overseen by the CST control room: ★★★★★

Set in the slightly made-up area of Child’s Hill, this park includes a “Wilderness Trail” in one small corner. Presumably the sign reading “Wilderness Trail” was cheaper than paying someone to cut the slightly overgrown grass in that part of the field because that basically seems to be the extent of it. Also, some work is needed on bench placement (see left).

Sturgess Park

Proximity to a branch of Monsoon: ★★★★
Ability to visit a supermarket without a £1 coin to hand: ★★★★★
Evidence of landscaping: ★

My guess is that, when Brent Cross shopping centre got planning permission, one condition was the creation of a new green space. Because this green space (all 30 square centimetres of it, most of which were taken up with discarded shopping trolleys) in the shadow of the monstrous hypermarket has nothing to commend it except that it, er, isn’t the monstrous hypermarket.

Elm Park

Interesting features: ★★★★
Niche and undiscovered: ★★★★★
Close to recreational drug supply: ★★★★

Less than 10 minutes’ walk from home, I genuinely did not know this place existed until I found it in Barnet’s directory. It’s surprisingly sweet, with a split-level structure and some nice paths. Unfortunately, while I hadn’t discovered it before, an unmarked but pungent BMW had, and its driver was conducting a brisk trade.

Central Square

Good class of user: ★★★★★
Ethnic diversity: ★★
Better during lockdown: ★★★★★

In the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, this is a naice green space, probably all the nicer without the throngs of girls from Henrietta Barnet who would no doubt be flooding it if it weren’t for the school closures. It’s not a place you could bring a family for a raucous game of swingball; more where the committee of the local Women’s Institute will hold socially-distanced meetings over the summer, with pitchers of ice tea being carried over from Mrs Holtenshaw’s nearby mansion.

Sunny Hill Park

Ease of access: ★
Size: ★★★★
Kashrut standards of café: ★★★

This is an unremittingly plain grassy park, albeit huge. Its size is perhaps undermined by the fact that there are only about two entrances and they’re pretty inconveniently located. There’s also a sweet, log-cabin café serving kosher shwarma and halloumi fries.

Mortimer Close Open Space

Size: ★
Facilities: ★
Any points in its favour: ★

I genuinely think that my first-floor flat contains a greater area of green space than does Mortimer Close. Presumably there’s some reason why Barnet lists this – basically just the microscopic patch of grass in the middle of a roundabout (see right) – on its database, perhaps it helps the borough gain eligibility for some grant, but it is most certainly neither open nor spacious.

Basing Hill Park

Regularity of rectangular shape: ★★★★★
Air quality: ★★
Quiet on Jewish festivals: ★

Lockdown or no lockdown, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Jewish faces in one place as this park as I did on Shavuot. And that was just one family. That said, this park is just a plain grassy quadrilateral, and that component of its atmosphere which isn’t derived from its heimische clientele comes straight from the six-lane Hendon Way on the other side of the fence.


Otherworldiness: ★★★★★
Rural feel: ★★★★
Location: ???

I can never quite make out Bigwood. I think there must be some spell in place which ensures that it only exists in real life and can’t be plotted on a map. It’s a proper old ancient forest, so thickly wooded you find it hard to believe you’re still in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Where did it come from? How did I find myself here? Was that path even there last time??

Princes Park

Mix of shade and sunshine: ★★★★
Jewish history: ★★★★★

Seating: ★★

The memorial to Sir Nicholas Winton is a high point; the fact that the council has resorted to using tree stumps instead of benches is a low point. It could have been done in a kitschy way but it was actually done in a, “We’re just going to fell this tree and you can sit here and like it,” way.

Brent Park

Clear walking route: ★★★★
Clear water: ★★
Clear boundaries: ★

This is a very strange, wholly linear park: you enter, there’s one path that avoids you ending up in the lake, and you follow that path until it peters out into someone’s back garden (literally). Fun for a little bit.

Cherry Tree Wood

Trainspotting opportunities: ★★★★
Combination of woods and fields: ★★★★
Blood spatters on pavement: ★★★★★

Located next to a spur of the Northern line, these woods have it all: space to spy on Underground trains out of their natural habitat, a nice green space for picnicking, and inexplicable red stains on some of the pathways.

Clarefield Park

Urban feel: ★★★★★
Safety: ★★
View: ★★

This is… wow. It’s like a post-apocalyptic world where a building site was just upped and left overnight and nature was allowed to reassert itself. There are piles of wood-chippings, random bits of lethal-looking twisted metal, and a view over a much more active building site. Once you’ve taken all that in, you’ve kind of had the whole experience, so it doesn’t lend itself to repeat custom. But, wow.

Rushgrove Park

Shape: ★★★★
Seclusion: ★★★★
Water quality: ★★

Tucked away in Colindale, this is a fairly cute, elongated green space. Its greatest strength (an attractive brook) is also its greatest weakness (a fetid, smelly brook).

Hampstead Heath

Views of central London: ★★★★
Number of visitors drinking chia seed smoothies: ★★★★★
Parking: ★

This is the classic. Perhaps a bit too cliché now. It’s certainly impossible to park anywhere near, and parking is kind of necessary ‘cos you can walk for miles and miles inside and then suddenly realise you’re practically in Tufnell Park.

The Heath Extension

Navigability: ★
Sense that somebody might turn up on horseback: ★★★★
Safety of tree roots: ★★

Like all good extensions, this is where the Heath keeps its collection of old records in slightly-dangerously-stacked boxes. Gnarled tree roots threaten every footprint, there’s no way to find out where you are until you walk in a straight line for long enough to reach a road of some sort, and while you always have the impression that it’s the sort of place an equestrian might appear at any moment, this doesn’t actually seem to happen.

Meadway Gate open space

Seating: ★★★★★
Anything but seating: ★

This literally is just the middle of a roundabout. It’s a very pretty roundabout, and there is a pergola, and several benches. But it’s very much more in the ‘nicely-tended front garden’ vibe than the ‘public park where you can come and relax during lockdown’ vibe.

Swan Lane open space

Opportunity to get up to high jinx in the long-grass: ★★★★★
Unexpected jetty in bagging area: ★★★★
Social distancing: ★

There seems to be a constant carnival up in Woodside Park, perhaps because this is one of the few green spaces with an open café selling ice-creams. An irregularly-shaped pond is complemented by an unexplained semi-flooded path that extends halfway across it, and a sand-dune-like area of long-grass offers privacy to couples and to those who want to smoke substances not available over-the-counter.

Clitterhouse Field

Mild comedy of name: ★★★★
Grass: ★★★★★
Grass: ★★★★★

I know it’s probably indicative of my city-dwelling privilege to complain when there’s too much grass, but I think this facility might have managed it. There’s so much grass. It’s just one grassy space so big that if you dropped a green wallet you would literally never find it ever again. Not a tree or a playground or a bench in sight (perhaps they’ve all been painted green). Grass.

Claremont Road open space

Hipster ‘reclaimed land’ vibe: ★★★★★
Access to Thameslink services: ★★★★
Lawful access to Thameslink services: ★

This is a very compact yet very cool park. It’s got hillocks. It’s got a birdwatching trail. It’s got a trainspotting area directly backing onto the tracks near Cricklewood station. It’s got secluded benches. It’s got straw. What’s not to like?