WHEN, LAST YEAR, it emerged that, in the wake of the “Trojan Horse” scandal, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was minded to compel teenagers taking GCSE Religious Studies to study at least one religious faith other than their own, there was a sharp difference of opinion within Anglo-Jewish clergy.
While divines from the so-called “Progressive” wing gave the proposal the warmest of welcomes, those of a more traditional bent did not. Reform rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner felt it “vital that, in a multicultural society, children learn about other religions.” But United Synagogue Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, while expressing his enthusiasm for “respect… and understanding of other faiths,” warned that “forced changes to the GCSE… is not the right way to achieve these shared goals.”
In responding to Mrs Morgan’s proposal, both Mirvis and the Board of Deputies were reported as having been “particularly heated in their anger”.
Now, faced with the inevitability of Mrs Morgan’s diktat, Mirvis has done a u-turn. He has recommended that Jewish schools under his aegis choose Islam as the second faith their pupils study. Because (said his spokesperson) Islam is “a faith which is widely discussed but often poorly understood in public discourse.”
This is unadulterated nonsense. I welcomed Mrs Morgan’s initiative as “a heaven-sent opportunity,” whereby Jewish youngsters might learn something about, for example, Christianity’s anti-Jewish origins or Islam’s ambivalent attitude (to put it mildly) towards both Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people worthy of — at most — a formal, second-class status. Alas, I spoke too soon. A colleague has drawn my attention to a draft GCSE Religious Studies syllabus produced last August by Pearson Edexcel and intended (subject to approval by Ofqual, the exams watchdog) to be taught from September. The section on Islam makes depressing reading.
Although both Sunni and Shi’a traditions are covered, the syllabus is silent on the more extreme forms of Sunni ideology, and makes no mention of Wahhabism, the relatively modern branch of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that forms the ideological (that’s to say, theocratic) motor of Islamic State and all its hideously savage works. I should add that nowhere in the sections on Christianity is there mention of Jesus as the Jew he undoubtedly was; indeed, the Jewish roots of both Christianity and Islam feature only implicitly in the Pearson draft that I have seen.
Reading through the draft, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that its authors have been driven by political considerations: pupils following the syllabus are to be fed a sanitised version of the truth to suit the anti-extremism initiative encapsulated in the well-intentioned but acutely injudicious “Prevent” agenda so eloquently critiqued by Professor Julius Weinberg (vice-chancellor of Kingston University and deputy chair of the Ofqual Board) in last month’s JC.
It’s not the chief rabbi who will have the last word on this great matter. And it’s not even the schools on which the responsibility formally rests to decide in principle which second religious faith to teach. It’s the teachers. They will teach the syllabus, and we can assume they will be provided with all manner of study notes and what have been described to me as “scripts” to assist them.
That being the case, it must be within the capability of one or more of our communal agencies to produce supplementary guidance on how Islam is to be taught and to distribute it free of charge to schools that are prepared to receive it.
I am far from saying that all Muslims are antisemitic. They aren’t. But it’s equally true — and I believe well understood by the public — that Islam is grounded in part in an explicit anti-Jewish discourse, just as it’s true that the Holocaust had its origins — in part — in Christian propaganda.
It is important that, in modern multiethnic Britain, our Jewish children are taught something about other religious groups with whom they will have to interact. But for God’s sake let them be taught the truth, the whole truth and (of course) nothing but the truth.
Our children should learn the truth about other religions