In the post-modern, multicultural and globalised world we live in today, it is much harder for western countries to define a sense of national identity and shared values. The UK is a prime case in point. Should it define itself through its Christian, imperial history or its multicultural, liberal present? In the days of New Labour, the latter was stressed. Now, following the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, the Coalition government are moving to the former.
Beyond this debate lies the UK’s Jewish community, happily going about its business. British Jews, with a long history of loyalty to Queen and country, a religious and cultural predisposition to integrate into a host country’s society and a broad sharing of values with modern Britain, seem to be above this kind of national identity crisis. Defining its relationship with mainstream British culture by its contribution to it, which has undoubtedly been disproportionately influential, the Jewish community’s place within British society is seemingly beyond question.
Or perhaps not. In Sir Michael Wilshaw’s (Head of Ofsted) Advice Note to the UK government in light of ‘Trojan Horse’, where inspections revealed that groups of governors with Islamic extremist tendencies had dramatically altered the ethos of some state schools in Birmingham in accordance with their agendas, he says that “in culturally homogeneous communities, schools are often the only places where children can learn about other faiths, other cultures and other styles of living”. As a result, all schools – including faith schools, will be required to “promote the values of wider British society”.
Although this policy seems innocuous, it could well represent a fatal blow to the right of the Jewish community to define the way it wants to live in the UK. Most would agree that Jewish schools prepare their students for life in modern Britain – even Charedi schools, who, despite their radically conservative approach, still produce law-abiding and respectful citizens. However they do much more than this. Whether it is Zionist principles of Jewish nationalism, support for the IDF and a positive disposition towards Aliyah or religious Jewish principles of fighting assimilation, traditional family values and differing roles for men and women, any inspection focusing on beliefs and attitudes within Jewish schools will put them on collision course with Ofsted and call into question their very existence within society.
The fundamental shift here is the switch from defining a minority community’s relationship with mainstream society by contribution, to one by belief. Although there are certainly problems with extremist values being taught in schools, turning Ofsted into the ‘thought police’ sets a dangerous precedent.
British politics is experiencing a polarisation of views to both the left and the right. The disaffected liberal middle class is pushing Labour towards the left, abandoning Tony Blair’s ‘third way’, whilst the disaffected working class is pushing the Conservatives towards the right, manifested indirectly through widespread support for UKIP. The Jewish community is becoming abandoned in the middle. Support for the IDF arouses the ire of the left, whilst the concept of a dual loyalty to Britain and Israel will soon cross a red line for the right.
History has a tendency to repeat itself. Jews have always been the enemy of the far left and the far right. However, bad things happen when they are attacked from both sides simultaneously. And what’s more, of all the issues to affect the Jewish community, it is the right to educate children in the Jewish way that represents one of the absolute fundamentals of Jewish life.
Ironically, it is the Jewish people who taught the western world the value of education and the right of every child to receive one. It is the Jewish people who have vast and successful experience of teaching Jewish values in a host country. It is the Jewish people who have consistently integrated into cultures the world over, bringing their own vigour and creativity to improving the society around them.
The UK Jewish community are fast becoming the 'Squeezed Middle' of the 'Big Society'. But sadly, neither Ed Miliband nor David Cameron seem to be paying attention.