By Winston Pickett
June 14, 2012
How do you define a problem with antisemitism that seems to reside in the hazy domain of intellectual subtlety, inferred meaning and suppositions of ill will – so much so that engaging with it threatens to tie even the most experienced brains into knots?
Welcome to the “Great GSCE Religion Question Controversy of 2012.”
First: in May some 1,000 UK 15-16 years-olds took a General Certificate of Secondary Education examination in the field of religious studies. GCSEs, as they are known, cover a battery of subjects in the sciences and humanities and are administered two years prior to graduating from the British equivalent of high school.
Second: the questions that make up the GCSE – any GCSE– are written by accredited and experienced educators. A representative number for the religion GCSE are Jewish.
Third: the formulation of the questions is complex, involving several layers of expert panels, including an ethics committee that oversees question-setting at both Advanced and GCSE levels.
These facts are important to keep in mind.
Why? Because the educators who drafted this year’s religion GCSE have had front-line experience in complex subjects – in this case the role of prejudice and stereotyping when it comes to how faith groups are perceived and portrayed. The body that oversees the composition and administration of the exams, Assessment & Qualifications Alliance>(AQA), made that much eminently clear on its web site:
”The relevant part of the syllabus for this GCSE covers prejudice and discrimination with reference to race, religion and the Jewish experience of persecution. The paper concerned is focused on Judaism.
“Students who have studied the syllabus should be able to discuss prejudice, in this case against Jewish people. The examiners marking this question will be looking for knowledge and understanding of the possible causes of prejudice, including the examples below, taken from the mark scheme:
• Irrational fear – scared or intimidated by others
• Ignorance – some people are ignorant (know nothing about) Jewish beliefs, lifestyle culture etc.
• Flawed upbringing – the home environment – racist parents etc.
• Scapegoating – unfairly blamed for something that has happened to them or their country etc.
• Stereotyping – irrational judgement that everyone in a group is the same, usually in a negative way.”
As might be expected, this information wasn’t featured prominently when the ‘religion question controversy’ hit the media.
Yet this bigger picture is critical for understanding how talking about antisemitism can befuddle even the most intelligent of minds.
Now for the GCSE question that set off a chorus alarm bells: “Explain briefly why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”
The first bell that was sounded was also the loudest. It came from education secretary Michael Gove, who declared himself to be mystified by both the question and the AQA’s decision to include it: "To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper."
It was, Gove added, "the duty of politicians to fight prejudice, and with antisemitism on the rise, we need to be especially vigilant".
For Jewish communal officials, Gove’s words had weight.
Long considered an eloquent and forceful champion in the battle against antisemtism both as a Conservative MP, a former Times columnist and author of Celsius 7/7 which exposed the ideological underpinnings of extremist terror , Gove is a self-described
At first glance, then, Gove seemed to have locked onto a logical as well as contextual flaw with the GCSE question.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, likewise concurred, telling the Jewish Chronicle, which ran the initial story on the front page under the glaring headline, ‘GCSE question asks “Why do some people hate Jews?”’: "Clearly this is unacceptable and has nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Judaism.” He further stated that the Board would bring the issue to the Department of Education when it will raise the issue of “antisemitism in schools.”
Before the Board raises the issue, however, they may want to listen to the views of Jewish educators and the public at large – the latter of whom feel that the official Jewish communal outcry was considerably over-the-top.
Clive Lawton, a well-known Jewish educator, founder of Limmud and a former chief examiner for A-level religious studies papers set by another board told the Jewish Chronicle: "I do understand why people might react negatively to the question, but it is a legitimate one. Part of the syllabus is that children must study the causes and origins of prejudice against Jews."
Still another voice came from historian Geoffrey Alderman, author of Modern British Jewry, who previously served as chief examiner in A-level history for the Associated Examining Board, a founding partner of the AQA.
Alderman stated flatly that the contention that anti-Jewish prejudice ‘does not have anything to do with religion’ is both historically and semantically inaccurate: “That this prejudice has religious origins is surely axiomatic. I would fully expect the religious origins of anti-Jewish prejudice to be taught at secondary schools; indeed I would have grave concerns if this was not part of the curriculum.”
Indeed, this view also appeared to be echoed by the general public, some of whom were scathing in their critique of Gove and others for failing to understand on even the most elementary semantic level that ‘explaining’ prejudice is not the same things as ‘justifying’ it.
“Does Gove think that irrational behaviour can't be explained?” wrote one respondent in the Guardian. “So much not just for psychiatry and psychotherapy, but also for large swaths of history, sociology and even imaginative literature. Or does he swallow the determinist fallacy, that if behaviour is explicable, then the agent can't be held responsible for it?”
My own misgivings are more fundamental.
The ‘GCSE Religion Question Controversy” glaringly illustrates how much antisemtism – even when the term is not explicitly used – carries with it such an electric charge. So much so, in fact, that it keeps people – conspicuously those who may ‘engage with’ and ‘call it out’ on a regular basis – from thinking clearly about in ways that override common sense.
Even the students who took the exam seem to have grasped the simple meaning of the GCSE question. Said the chief spokesperson for the AQA: From our initial review of the answer papers, it looks like students did understand the question in the sense that was intended. Their responses show they understand the issues around prejudice and have in no way sought to justify it."
The crux of my concern is that all the talk about the dangers of antisemtism has rendered the intellectual engagement with understanding it either taboo or irrelevant.
To put it bluntly: If you don’t analyse it, you can’t combat it.
“If you really take immoral attitudes and behaviour seriously, you do your best to help eradicate them. Condemnation is necessary, but to stop at that is just moral posturing,” continued Nigel Blake in his Guardian letter. “And you can't do anything about a social evil unless you understand it.”
This may also mean giving up some of the parochialism of regarding antisemtism as a ‘Jewish concern’: for only if we see how antisemtism as a form of prejudice shares components with other forms of group hatred will we be able to elevate the discussion onto a level of cross-society responsibility.
In America, certain organizations seem to understand this kind of intellectual coalition-building as a matter of course. They’ve also managed to channel it into real, operational programmes.
One of the oldest and most respected think-tanks is the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization known for its legal victories against white supremacist groups; its legal representation for victims of hate groups; as well as its monitoring of alleged hate groups, militias and extremist organizations.
What sets the SPLC apart are its array of educational programs that combat hatred, most notably its award-winning website Tolerance.org, which gives daily updates on tolerance issues, educational games for children, guidebooks for activists and resources for parents and teachers that promote respect for diversity.
One publication, called Speak Up, not only instructs readers and teachers how to identify racist and antisemtic utterances but also how to practically counter them on an every day basis.
To say that we in the UK have much to learn in this area would be an understatement. What worries me, however, is a nagging concern that rises up each time imbroglios like the GCSC controversy erupt in the public space.
It is this: Are some of us so emotionally and historically caught up in the dangers and historical trajectory of antisemitism that we fail to see the bigger picture?
It is for this reason that Alderman’s proposal to have this year’s GCSE answers preserved for scholarly analysis makes eminent sense. “We know remarkably little about the contemporary encounter between English schoolchildren and anti-Jewish prejudice,” he writes. “These particular answer-books surely have a unique part to play in filling this void.”
What’s more, such and initiative would jump start an essential evidence-gathering process that might just enable us to find some practicable antidotes for countering antisemtism and other group hatreds in this country – rather than simply talking about it.