Answering the GCSE question

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 29, 2012

"Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews."

Some weeks ago, I devoted this column to the above question, which was included in a GCSE paper on religious studies set recently by the Assessment & Qualifications Alliance (AQA).

I argued that the question was entirely reasonable and that I hoped the AQA would preserve the answers, which might yield valuable data on the perceived causes of anti-Jewish prejudice in this country. A reader, who did not entirely agree with these views, has challenged me to write the sort of answer an intelligent pupil sitting that GCSE paper might have offered to the question about which I wrote so approvingly. Here, therefore, is an imagined answer, as it might have been penned by - say - a media-savvy 16-year-old living in north London.

"In my opinion, some people are prejudiced against Jews because Jews are clever at exploiting the law for their own ends, using sneaky legal devices to side-step our democracy. In our English lessons we've studied Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. In this play, the Jewish moneylender Shylock is portrayed as a selfish and obstinate man who thinks a lot of himself because he sticks to the letter of the law, no matter what human misery results. Here in north London there have been some recent examples of this as reported in the local papers.

"A few years ago, there was a scandal in Hendon when a group of Jewish leaders wanted to build a girls' school in a warehouse on an industrial estate. The local council's planning committee turned down their request. The very next morning, in complete defiance of the council, they sent in the builders to convert the warehouse, which was soon operating as a school and causing traffic problems and anger among local residents.

Jews are clever at using the law for their own ends

"Then a government inspector was called in. The Jews told him that now there were more than 200 girls at the school, and that if he went against them these girls would have no school to go to. So in my view the inspector was blackmailed into agreeing that the school could stay open, even though the elected local authority had ruled against it.

"Just a few weeks ago, in another part of London, there was a similar story. There are many Jews in Hackney and they have many children. So a group of these Jews set up a school in a house. Unlike in Hendon they didn't even ask the local council whether they could do this. Other residents in the street were very annoyed - there was a lot of noise and disturbance from the 'school' and more traffic.

"So Hackney Council tried to get the school closed. But the Jews got the services of some very clever people, who convinced a government official that the 'school' should stay open, and to hell with the views of the elected local authority. Now some residents of the area are saying that the value of their properties is falling, and that they will move out. Which is probably what the Jews wanted all along, so they can buy more properties cheaply.

"I'm not prejudiced against Jews. They've suffered a lot from the Nazis. But when Jews behave as I've described you can understand why some people are prejudiced against them, can't you?"

Now, dear reader, I want to ask what mark you would give the above imagined essay. A common failing at GCSE (and also at A Level and degree level) is that the answer does not address the question set. But this is clearly not the case here. The response is narrowly focused, and is grounded almost exclusively in the candidate's admittedly parochial knowledge. But it is evidence-based, reasonably well written, and makes an argument. You could even say it was perceptive. It is clearly of "pass" standard and would probably merit a C - perhaps even a B.

To get a grade A the candidate would, I think, have had to acknowledge that Jews were not the only group to exploit the planning laws, perhaps pointing to a case or two of large corporations who had done so. But he or she might have added that they were the only group to exploit planning laws in the name of religion, and with the backing of their religious leaders.

And had this argument been deployed, it would have been only too true, wouldn't it?

Last updated: 4:33pm, June 29 2012