How can a great Chief Rabbi ask Jewish schools to teach their pupils Islam?

I am a very great admirer of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. I am a member of the UK’s Federation of Synagogues, so, as Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue group of Orthodox UK synagogues, he is not directly “my” chief rabbi. However, the Federation of Synagogues recognises his religious authority as the nationally recognised authoritative voice of Orthodox British Jewry.

I also  profoundly respect him as a man whose dealings with others make one proud to be Jewish. (Disclosure: My daughter worked for some years in the synagogue where he was rabbi. I know whereof I speak).

But as someone who worked as a school inspector in UK schools for many years, I am appalled that the chief rabbi should have recommended that Jewish schools teach a course about Islam as well as their Jewish studies, so that their pupils can take the recently revised UK national religious education 16+ qualification syllabus. It used to be possible to get the 16+ religious education qualification in Jewish studies alone.

The revised English 16+ religious education syllabus now requires pupils who take it to study two religions, a national policy which I believe to be profoundly misguided and counterproductive.

Behind the national policy lies a fear that Muslim children might be being indoctrinated by supplementary religious classes towards hostile attitudes to British society and values. Whilst some such classes have been found to teach such attitudes, and even some secular schools controlled by groups of Islamist governors, the great majority have not. Requiring the children to be taught about Judaism or Christianity in their schools is not going to counter such practices.

The tiny number of our three million UK Muslims who have carried out acts of Islamist terrorism in the UK, Israel and in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria were almost entirely educated in secular and even Church of England schools where they were taught all about Christianity and perhaps a smattering about Judaism too.

One of our UK Islamist would be terrorists actually attended the King David Jewish Primary School in Birmingham. It did not prevent him from landing up in the arms of Al Qaeda and cooling his heels in Guantanamo Bay.

I have been involved in inspections and state assessments of various kinds of secular, Jewish, Muslim, Church of England, Roman Catholic and Sikh schools at every level from nurseries to sixth form colleges.

I have taught in schools at reception to sixth form level, and was for some years a head of department in an inner city school. I also spent almost thirty years leading University degree level teacher training courses based in schools.

One of the things my experience has taught me is how utterly inadequately people whose history and culture is within one religion teach about other religions, unless they have years of study and qualification to teach about the other religion.

I have so often sat watching absolutely toe curling sessions where well meaning but ignorant Christian and secular teachers taught their pupils profound misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Judaism.

At best, they performed a verbal tour with maybe some interesting films of Passover Seders and perhaps a visit to a fine old synagogue.

But knowing that Jews have the Torah as their holy book and have the Sabbath (which most Jews in the UK don’t observe) does not promote more than the most superficial understanding of Judaism, still less of what it is to be a Jew.

It takes years and years to bring up a Jewish child as a Jew. How deeply misguided it is to think that a teacher with at the most ten hours training can teach about a world religion other than his or her own — or, as is most common in English schools, despite being a proud secularist who despises religions or finds them ridiculous, boring or unnecessary.

The requirement to teach two religions is ultimately based on a belief, prevalent in UK teaching circles since the 1960s, in teaching children that all religions are basically the same.

It is a direct descendant of the attitudes of ancient Greco-Roman attitudes to religion. So for years, most secular primary schools and even Roman Catholic schools have had religious education syllabuses designed to teach this concept.

So the teaching is organised round showing that all religions have a holy book. That they all have special festivals and festivals of light in particular. Not only does this not teach children what is unique and special and particular to each religion, it reduces great world religions and belief systems to lowest common denominators.

It particularly distorts the claims to teach about Judaism, because it means that in most secular primary schools, far too long is spent on teaching about Chanukah, compared with the amount of time devoted to the High Holy Day festivals, especially Yom Kippur, which barely gets a look in.

And, ironically, the teaching of the UK’s primary school children about Chanukah focuses almost entirely on the Chanukah lamps and maybe the eight day miracle of the oil — but never mentions that the war of the Maccabees was fought to drive out the compulsory imposition of Greek religious practices on the Jews. Hardly the subject for a syllabus that now proposes to make it compulsory for Jewish teens who want a 16+ qualification in religious studies to have to study a religion other than Judaism.

Why it should be Islam has perhaps more to do with the political priorities of the funders of the United Synagogue, or a mistaken belief that teaching about Islam will make Jewish pupils more inclined to support campaigns for Israeli-Palestinian peace moves. But perhaps there are other reasons for choosing Islam rather than the national religion of England, Christianity.

Whichever way, it’s a thoroughly bad idea.

That’s the instrumental argument.

The other is that my understanding of Orthodox Judaism is that it is not allowed to teach Jewish children other religions. We are not even supposed to take them into a church service. Their religious education should be about Judaism. There is no shortage of things to learn, but a great shortage of time.

There is also perhaps the much less worthy consideration that perhaps some Jewish secondary schools, currently riding justifiably proudly at the top end of the national 16+ achievement tables, might be fearing they’ll plummet down the achievement tables if they have to pull out of teaching the national religious 16+ qualification, in which their pupils have historically done so well. And then parents might go elsewhere.

If that’s the case, it’s still hardly a reason to bow down to a national edict to teach Orthodox Jewish children a religion which is not only not their own, but claims that Judaism was a distorted version of the claimed “true” religion of Islam. In my personal view, this is a betrayal of Orthodox Jewish children and of Orthodoxy.

Of course, Chief Rabbi Mirvis has authority and learning in Judaism, in comparison to whose learning, my status is as puny, as the great Zulu Chieftain said of his status in relation to Queen Victoria in the zenith of Empire, as a mere flea on her blanket.

Nevertheless, he does not have direct authority over the curriculum of Orthodox Jewish schools, most of which are not controlled by the United Synagogue movement, but by a range of independent religious trusts.

Most of them have nominated rabbis who guide their religious teaching, but ultimately their religious syllabus is guided by the religious authority or authorities named in their foundation documents.

One can and should of course teach Jewish children in Jewish schools what one haredi school calls a Kovod HaBrios programme –– a programme of profound respect for all of the Almighty’s creation of human beings as well as of all living things, and a commitment to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

About the Author
Judy Keiner is a London based, retired senior Lecturer in education at the University of Reading and former teacher, school inspector, government education and schools consultant.