Geoffrey Alderman

How the Tories’ education shake-up risks alienating Jewish voters

How the Tories' education shake-up risks alienating Jewish voters
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Labour desperately needs to win over Jewish voters if Jeremy Corbyn is to make it to Downing Street. At the snap election, the party was damaged by underperformance in seats with large Jewish populations: Hendon (held by the Tories by a only 1,072 votes) and Finchley (Tory majority 1,657) are two examples. Labour's summer of anti-Semitism has made winning over such voters even trickier. But while the Tories look well placed to keep hold of these seats, they appear to be doing their best to imitate Corbyn and alienate Jewish voters.

An increasingly bitter row between the government and orthodox Jewish communities across Britain is to blame for this. This confrontation has nothing to do with Israel, though, and everything to do with the education that pupils receive in both taxpayer-funded and private Jewish schools.

From 2020, all primary schools in England will have to teach relationships education; all secondary schools will have to teach relationships and sex education (RSE). Parents will have the right to withdraw their children from sex (but not relationships) education. Faith schools have received an assurance that they will still be able to teach RSE “within the tenets of their faith.” Yet it’s far from clear that teachers in faith schools will not be required to promote same-sex marriage to which they, or their schools, are religiously opposed.

In 2017, the orthodox Jewish Vishnitz girls school failed an Ofsted inspection on the grounds that because it declined to teach its pupils about homosexuality, it was not giving them “a full understanding of fundamental British values.” It apparently matters not that, in other respects, Jewish schools are complimented on their teaching and pupil behaviour. Schools that are deemed not to meet Ofsted requirements must “improve” or face closure. As the Edgware-based rabbi Mordechai Rose wrote in a pamphlet that’s being circulated widely within the orthodox Jewish world, “Jewish faith schools are consistently being failed for promoting a way of life that does not conform to modern British secular values. … But is it really the role of the state to suppress the views of those that differ from them and to forbid that they teach them to their children?”

The reality is that the LGBT lobby is slowly but surely undermining the right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. Parental authority is being replaced by the edicts of the state.

Damian Hinds’ predecessor as education secretary, Justine Greening proposed a shake-up of sex education that could see children introduced to concepts such as homosexuality and transgenderism from a young age. This would meet with near-total opposition in the orthodox Jewish world, where sex education takes place exclusively in the privacy of the home, and is given by married parents. Traditionally, such education is typically grounded in an understanding of Leviticus 18, which prohibits any active male homosexual relationship.

There have been a couple of clumsy attempts made recently to encourage a rapprochement between the country’s fast-growing orthodox Jewish communities and the Department for Education. Last week, the DfE announced that children in private primary schools would no longer have to be explicitly taught about gay marriage or same-sex families. But this new guidance does not extend to secondary schools, nor to any school that is taxpayer-funded (as a growing number of leading orthodox Jewish schools are).

The DfE’s announcement followed an initiative by chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who last month issued guidance for communities under his authority relating to the treatment of LGBT schoolchildren. His unequivocal condemnation of the bullying of young people struggling with their sexuality is clearly sensible. But in drafting his guidance he worked with “Keshet UK,” a body whose purpose – to promote the inclusion of LGBT lifestyles – is simply anathema to most orthodox Jews. Scarcely less serious is the offhand way in which Mirvis refers to Leviticus 18 in his guidance. Rabbinical repudiation of his guidance is widespread and growing.

Damian Hinds and his advisors at the DfE would be wrong to think that Ephraim Mirvis speaks for most Jews in Britain today. In fact, demographic trends mean that, as a proportion of the total of British Jews, the centrist United Synagogue is a declining force. In short, May’s government is in danger of neglecting the views of a large proportion of Jews. If she fails to do this, she will do so at her political peril.