Multiculturalism in the U.K.: Faith Based and Ethnic Schools

 – The Debate

by Norman Berdichevsky (Feb. 2008)

Writing in The Times of London on October 20, 2007, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks admitted that the “Emperor is naked”  His editorial, entitled “Multiculturalism is a Disaster”, called a spade a spade. Writing with a candor unusual for a Rabbi and in earnest defiance of the self-hypnotic mantra subscribed to by many Jews prominent in public life in both the U.K. and the U.S., that “Multiculturalism = Good; Assimilation, Accommodation and Acculturation = ALL BAD, it was as if the numbing pain caused by endlessly repeating the same orthodox liberal policy of “multiculturalism” and coming to the same disastrous dead end result (Einstein’s definition of insanity), had miraculously been lifted.    

His remarks that with the best of intentions, British society had become the arena of competing ethnic, religious, gender and racial groups claiming victimhood and asserting that each one’s special pain, oppression, humiliation merited first special rights and then special treatment, is an all too familiar leaf taken from an American page. Very much the same views regarding the danger and failings of “multiculturalism” have been stated by Michael Nazir-Ali, Pakistani-born Anglican Bishop of Rochester. Like the Rabbi, the Bishop has expressed deep concern over the isolationist mentality of those immigrants who are being encouraged to turn their residential neighborhoods into “no go areas” where the police and “strangers” are unwelcome. He has called for disregarding the use of the veil for muslim women when security measures call for its removal and has subsequently been targeted with invective from extremist opinion makers among various imams and  “Muslim spokesmen.”

Until very recently, the British government has avoided the continuing controversy over the questionable advisability of establishing additional separate Muslim sectarian schools. In spite of the use of the term “mutliculturalism” by members of Parliament and even ministers, it has meant different things to different people. There are now more than 7,000 faith-based schools in Britain, the great majority run by the Church of England or the Catholic Church, with a handful of Jewish schools and over the past twenty years, more than 100 Muslim schools have been established, primarily in London and in the cities of the Northern Midlands where large numbers of Muslim immigrants settled.

The majority of these schools are privately run but since 1998, a handful have won full accreditation and received state funding and in order to qualify for such help they, in turn, must teach the national curriculum and run a nondiscriminatory admissions policy. There are also dozens of state run schools that have overwhelming Muslim majorities of more than 90% of their student body due to segregated housing patterns, especially in the Midlands. Some of the still privately run independent Muslim schools are partially funded by Saudi Arabia and make use of Saudi texts (also used by Hamas in Gaza) that are blatantly biased on the Middle East conflict, anti-Semitic, contemptuous of Westrn civilization and reflect the ultra-conservative Wahhabi trend within Islam. They encourage the pupils in these school to avoid “contamination” from British society and their fellow citizens who are of other faiths.

Most of us understand acculturation and assimilation as the gradual absorption of an immigrant group into the host culture. Where the culture, language, religion, and racial identity of the two groups differ substantially, the task of absorption is longer and more difficult. Whatever the background, the issue for all parents who agonize over the decision whether to send their children to state or special sectarian schools is however, much the same: Should the formal educational system acknowledge and in some way validate ‘our heritage’?

The hope is that most state schools will creatively find ways to value the backgrounds of all their pupils equally. If there is a basic mistrust that this validation will take place, the pupils cannot feel secure regarding their ability to live, work and compete on equal terms, except by totally surrendering the heritage of their parents. The older generation of the foreign born who have settled permanently in the U.S. and the U.K. naturally have expectations that their children will not deny their ancestral heritage which has been transmitted and cherished for generations. In this sense, a benign multiculturalism may be a positive force contributing to the stability of society among the generations but it can and has been easily twisted by demagogues into a divisive strategy for manipulation and the exercise of power. 

The teachers in state schools cannot make “multiculturalism” THE goal or primary educational objective of the school. The primary objective must be the preparation of all young people equally for a productive future in the mainstream of the dominant society. Parents demanding sectarian schools must make a case for why they expect the state to bear the major costs instead of using their own private means and their children’s own private time after a state school-based educational program. Only sectarian schools that are committed to the principle of preparing young people for compete equally in this society and at the same time promote an appreciation of an ancestral heritage, distinct cultural tradition or of dearly held religious values can escape the justified suspicion that they are divisive.

Even when ethnic differences are non-existent as in Northern Ireland, religion often functions as a principal indicator of social belonging or ostracism. Is there as good a case to be made for sectarian schools on a religious basis alone? I believe the answer must be a qualified yes. This is the result of historic ‘memories’ that refuse to be exorcised (the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Battle of the Boyne, East European pogroms, the Expulsion of 1290, the Crusades, etc.). The same is true for distinctive ethnic groups whose cultural heritage is held as a primary value by parents.

Prime Minister Tony Blair made parental choice a key element of his education policy, and gave families the option of sending their children to a secular state school or a faith-based one. This means that the best run religious schools that accept state financing can provide a high quality education which otherwise would be available only on the private level for high fees as in France. The record in Britain is that a few state-funded Muslim schools have strong academic records and the older and more established Jewish schools at the secondary level have traditionally obtained very high academic achievements.

Since the terrorist attacks on the London Underground on July 7, 2005 however, Islamic schools have been justifiably criticized for their role in fostering social divisions or even worse, alienating their pupils from the core values of British society. Some social scientists suggest that alienation from modern British culture might be a factor encouraging impressionable young men to seek martyrdom as suicide bombers. This is strongly denied by Muhammad Mukadam, chairman of the Muslim Schools’ Association who has called attention to the fact that none of the young men linked to the July 7 bombings had attended Muslim schools in Britain, though they “might have done so elsewhere.”

The Islamia Schools Group in London, set up in 1983, often has several thousand applicants for only a handful of available places but only entered the state system in 1998. It is open to both sexes and all ages from primary school to pre-university, and has children from more than 20 national origins among its students. In addition to the demand to teach the state curriculum, state-funded schools must be certified, and state-funded schools, unlike private ones, must allow community members to sit on their governing boards. In spite of these requirements, concern has been expressed that the influence of parents at Muslim schools pressure the teachers to avoid the subject of the Holocaust because it “does not fit into their conception of relevant important historical information” for their children.

Under present legislation, most state and private schools are inspected by Ofsted, The Office for Standards in Education, an agency that is directly asnwerable to Parliament, and whose task it is to ensure that schools meet proper standards of teaching, curriculum, school leadership, attendance and behavior. Failure to meet these standards can result in closing of the school. As this article was going to press, The London Daily Telegraph reported that an independent body, The Department for Children, Schools and Families [DCSF] would run a separate Inspectorate, giving it the power to inspect about 60 private Muslim schools and 50 Christian schools, claiming that this would help “promote integration” because the body would not be composed of a “single faith” and would be “more sensitive” especially when dealing with Muslim schools which demand “specialist knowledge”. these proposals fly in the face of criticism from both Conservative and Labour MPS in both The House of Commons and the House of Lords who have expressed their concern that it is very difficult to get an accurate assessment of what is going on in Muslim schools.

British t.v.’s Channel 4 recently produced an undercover report in its Dispatches program entitled “Undercover Mosque” that was nominated for a Royal Televison Society award. The documentary featured a reporter infiltrating mosques across Britain to expose a numer of chilling fanatic extremist imams. If this is the reality of Islam as preached in many mosques without interference or monitoring, can the schools be far behind? 

Yet the government is taking a major step backward in the face of the recent criticism voiced by the Chief Rabbi and Bishop of Rochester. To demonstrate its continued bonafide commitment to multiculturalism in order to pacify radical Muslim resentment over what is perceived as Christian and Jewish criticism of Islamic schools, the present Labour administration of Gordon Brown wishes to be “politically correct” and strengthen its hold on potential Muslim votes in future elections. This move will only further antagonize a growing majority of the British people.  Apologists for Islam in Britain remind critics that the parents should have a “major” influence and that “adapting” the curriculum is sometimes necessary.

For most Brits among the white native born and Protestant majority however, there is no foreseeable wish on their part to rid themselves of a thousand years of history, tradition and the identity forged between the monarchy (whose sovereign is still the Defender of THE Faith), the flag (with its crosses of St. George and St. Andrew), the Churches of England and Scotland and the Anglican prayers and hymns heard at all nondenominational comprehensive state schools’ morning assemblies. This is likely to remain true no matter how multi-cultural, multi-ethnic or multi-religious Britain becomes. As long as the vast majority feels entitled to these, allowance should indeed be made to others who hold other symbols just as dearly, but NOT as an aggressive competitive alternative and NOT to encourage the minority to seek shelter in ethnic and religious enclaves.

Most Catholic, Jewish or Muslim parents whose way of life and deeply held beliefs allow them to look upon the monarch and the flag as shared symbols cannot accept the state’s church and morning assembly prayers and hymns as their own. They should continue to have a right to provide alternatives for the education of their children in this regard. They must however accept that the state schools are duty bound to offer a curriculum based on the appreciation of national symbols, rules to guide acceptable public behavior, the acquisition of those necessary skills to help earn a living and contribute to the general welfare and last but not least, the achievements of English culture and British history. In contrast to the Welsh, Scots and Irish who have distinct ‘home territories’ within the British Isles, all other so-called ‘minority groups’ face the dilemma of promoting an appreciation for an alternative culture other than the overwhelmingly dominant and universally imitated and admired English one.

I lived and worked in London from 1991 to 1999. Due to the sudden illness of the regular Hebrew teacher at The Jews’ Free School in London, I was able to fill in and continued in the same capacity the following year as the result of another fluke – the sudden change of mind of the Hebrew teacher hired from Israel to fill the position. I was hired for a position to teach the modern Hebrew language which nevertheless was officially regarded by the school and the authorities as part of the particularly “religious part of the curriculum.” Traditionally, the school would have insisted that the teacher be an observant orthodox Jew, but they looked the other way due to the pressing need to fill the position.

JFS was established in 1817 and by the end of the 19th century the school had over 4,000 pupils on roll, both boys and girls, making it the largest state supported school in London. In the century since then, the school has migrated across London from the East End to Camden Town to the outer suburbia of Northwest London, just as the descendants of immigrants have themselves migrated in the same direction.

The school, in all of its advertisements for new staff, insists on carefully phrasing that it “welcomes non-Jewish teachers” (for all subjects in the curriculum except Jewish Studies and Modern Hebrew) but in my case, the fact that I am a secular Jew already created problems from the start, even though no part of the language instruction curriculum relies on any doctrine of religious observance. In the classroom, this meant that I had to wear a kippah (head covering worn by observant Jews). On this same issue, the school once cancelled an event in which the celebrated secular Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua, was scheduled to give a talk. He had refused to wear the religious symbol and was thus considered as posing a challenge to the religious ethos of the school. 

The basic instinct of many in the non-orthodox Jewish community is that Jewish schools run a risk of segregating pupils from main-stream society and fail to provide a balanced realistic view of the world around them. Nevertheless many Jewish parents, while paying lip service to universal ideals, send their children to a state supported Jewish school which they believe is academically superior to the alternative state comprehensive school. The same explanation has been given by cynics for the apparent success of bilingual (Welsh and English) schools in Wales and even schools in Ireland that offer instruction in Gaelic. Such schools enjoyed a greatly increased popularity since the 1970s. A socio-economic profile of pupil enrolment revealed a definite middle class preponderance in these schools and Labour party critics assailed the trend as an attempt to preserve an elitist environment rather than promote Welsh cultural identity.

As a teacher of Hebrew in the Jews’ Free School in London for a year and a half I came to the conclusion that the greatest failure of Jewish schools lies in the same direction — their inability to provide not just a veneer of traditional observance of ritual under the guise of Limmudei Kodesh (Jewish Studies) and Ivrit (Hebrew) but a cultural counterpoint (not a replacement) to Anglo-Saxon society. A new subject entitled “Israel Studies” was recently introduced in the curriculum and hopefully will provide a better understanding of the links between British Jews and Israeli society beyond formal religious observance.

Jewish beliefs and traditions stem from an enormous variety of Diaspora experiences, different languages, customs, and beliefs — a diverse heritage that in today’s reality has largely been reduced to preferences for ‘mother’s kitchen’ (i.e. the Smoked Salmon, Gefilte Fish and Salt Beef Jews). If one reads the community newsletters of other ethnic groups in Britain there is a lively debate not just regarding political developments in the ancestral homeland but also cultural creativity there — literature, popular music and song, dance, the arts, and sport. The common denominators to enjoy this creativity is language and a commitment to community involvement.

In today’s Britain, Jews are not, as they were in the past, the only significant and highly visible minority. At the turn of the century Jews were highly concentrated geographically in the East End of London and the great majority enjoyed a vibrant cultural and religious life in another language (Yiddish). Over the past three generations, many have chosen to give up much of this heritage and draw closer to the English majority in every way except formal religious identification. In this, they are entitled to do so and no effort is made or policy encouraged for pupils at JFS to withdraw or segregate themselves from the majority of their fellow citizens. Many JFS graduates hold distinguished positions in the arts, sceinces, law, medicine and public affairs.

In many ways, the same process has occurred over the past five centuries to the Scots, Welsh and the Irish who have remained within the political framework of the United Kingdom. These three peoples of the ‘Celtic fringe’ of Britain have witnessed the loss of much of their heritage. The same has occurred with significant numbers of European immigrants — the Greeks, Germans, Poles, Italians and Maltese and is also occurring among ‘New Commonwealth’ immigrants many of whom are racially different and non-Christian.

Jews differ from the majority by religion but this religion is visible only among the small number of devoutly Orthodox. The non-Orthodox tend however to be attracted to affluent ‘golden ghettos’ of suburbia and are often seen only as a pale imitation of the affluent classes of the ‘Anglo-Saxon (English) majority.’ By 2050, it is likely that the majority of the Jewish People will be Hebrew speaking Israelis. Every year sees more Jewish families in Britain connected in some close way with Israel through continued emigration of friends or family. Repeated visits to Israel bring a greater familiarity with the country’s landscapes and way of life — slowly but surely, Jews in the U. K. are exchanging former connections to origins in Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal or the Arab World with a recognition of Israel as a parallel homeland and in so doing coming to resemble the other “ethnic communities” in Britain such as the Irish, Poles, Cypriots, Kenyans, etc.

One can have more than a single identity. Some of the greatest writers in the English language were Scots, Welsh and Irish. James Joyce did not feel less Irish or Dylan Thomas less Welsh or Robert Louis Stevenson less Scottish because they chose to write in English. Their subjects are recognizably Irish, Welsh and Scottish characters set in the towns, and countryside of Ireland, Wales and Scotland with which they were intimately familiar. They wrote in English but expressed the fortunes and misfortunes of their countries’ native sons and daughters. It is even more than a bit ironic that the main character in Joyce’s Ulysses representing ‘everyman’ is Bloom — an Irish Jew! Some of the greatest writers in the English Language today are Asians who have long been resident in Britain for many years and whose work reflects a dual cultural heritage (Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipul) enjoyed by Asian-Britons. Both Rushdie and Naipul, because of their honesty and critical stance regarding events and trends in the Middle East, India, the Carribean and especially regarding Islam, have been subject to death threats by extremists among Arab, Asian and African immigrants.

A Welshman who chooses to vote for Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party) will argue with his fellow countrymen, only one-fifth of whom speak Welsh fluently (if only one-fifth of the British Jewish community could even read an Israeli newspaper!), that without national independence, Welsh culture is doomed in the face of the majority English domination of the UK. However, the popularity of the Eisteddfod, the continued success and appeal of massed Welsh male choirs, the growth of a parallel Welsh language elementary school system, the success of the Welsh language t.v. station all bode well for the survival of what makes Wales distinctive and makes even non-Welsh speakers aware that Welsh cultural and historical heritage is alive, presenting the opportunity for an added dimension in their lives.

In my view, Jewish or Muslim or Catholic or Welsh or Gaelic speaking pupils should not be separated or segregated from their friends even if they go to a sectarian school. They must share the same national symbols and culture as well as have the choice if they so wish, to preserve those distinctive cultural features which would allow a shared feeling of kinship and cultural connection with their ethnic or religious counterparts abroad. Those sectarian schools that offer both elements have a right to be partially supported by the state. Those which cannot accept the common shared elements out of a fear of a loss of identity have no right to claim any public support. Those that practice intimidation or make threats in order to prevent assimilation or preserve their “way of life” should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  

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