Let's recognise our friends

By Richard Benson, December 22, 2010
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On 8 December, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, wrote to me, announcing government funding for the security guards at 39 voluntary aided Jewish schools. He said the funding, "should fully meet the parental costs of the guarding... parents of Jewish pupils in VA schools in England should not have to pay for counter-terrorism measures, over and above mainstream security costs. Any responsible government should meet those additional costs on its citizens."

This striking example of concrete government backing for our community followed five years of CST-led campaigning to reduce the burden of security costs on parents of Jewish schoolchildren.

We should not underestimate the significance of the decision, nor the input from Michael Gove that finally drove it through.

From the outset, however, it would not have been possible without support from John Mann and the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism. Other MPs from all political parties have also made invaluable contributions, both of moral encouragement and practical input. In particular, Mike Freer and Matthew Offord provided outstanding support whilst they were still Barnet councillors, and then after their election to Parliament. The Jewish media also played its part, keeping the issue alive in the news and editorial pages.

We need to come to terms with the need for security, then live our lives

CST Chairman Gerald Ronson and I have met and discussed the school funding issue with a succession of ministers, including David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid, Jacqui Smith and Ed Balls, as well as with Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. These leading politicians all sympathised with our community's situation but many technical hurdles remained.

The need for security, expressed by CST and the schools, required backing from the police. The cost of security infrastructure and guarding across 39 schools was assessed and scrutinised by CST. New mechanisms for delivering the funding were drawn up from scratch and agreed across numerous government departments.

As this complex process dragged on, CST implemented and largely funded an ambitious programme to enhance physical security at all community buildings, including Jewish schools.

This infrastructure helps reduce the number of guards actually needed.

As Chief Executive of CST, I fully sympathise with communal unease about antisemitism, and especially with frustration regarding what can actually be done to prevent the threats against our community, whether that be radicalisation on campus, the potential terrorist threats that we try to ensure do not inhibit our way of life, or abusive and offensive postings on the internet.

Nevertheless, when times are difficult, we should most remember the friendship and determination of the many politicians, civil servants and police who are trying to help combat the problem. Ending antisemitism and terrorist threats is of course our common goal, but we have to deal with the reality of today's situation.

So whilst nobody wants to see, far less celebrate, security hardware and guards at synagogues, Jewish schools or events, we have all witnessed the murderous intent of the terrorists and the sheer extent of their UK networks. Sadly, their threats and actions across the world show they regard Jews as priority targets.

We will require a security response for the foreseeable future. It is an abnormal situation, but we need to come to terms with it and lead our Jewish lives as we see fit.

Indeed, never before have there been so many opportunities to lead the Jewish life of our choice, be that religious, educational or cultural.

It is in this context that the government's decision should be understood. It should boost our morale and increase our determination to enjoy our identity to the full, as we have every right and every opportunity to do.

Richard Benson is Chief Executive of the Community Security Trust (CST)

    Last updated: 11:42am, December 22 2010